Earle Birney

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Northrop Frye (review date December 1942)

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SOURCE: Frye, Northrop. Review of David and Other Poems.The Canadian Forum 22, no. 263 (December 1942): 278.

[In the following review, Frye offers a positive review of Birney's first published collection of poetry.]

This is a book [David and Other Poems] for those interested in Canadian poetry to buy and for those interested in complaining that we haven't got any to ignore. Anyone who follows Canadian verse at all closely will be very pleased to see Mr. Birney's fugitive pieces gathered into one volume, and anyone who read the title poem when it first appeared in the Forum will be keenly interested in finding it again in a published book as part of a larger collection.

The people who are familiar with the conventions of modern poetry, who can grasp its difficult language and place its recondite illusions, now form a specialized cult largely confined to universities. “David” will get the full approval of this audience as being on its own merits a touching, beautiful and sensitively written story. But a large reserve of intelligent readers, not in the cult but willing to listen to a poet who has a real story to tell and who tells it simply and honestly, will also like this poem. The more blasé will take a while to recover from their surprise at seeing, in a volume of contemporary verse, a straightforward narrative cut to fit the “common reader,” without flounces of fake symbolism, gathers of atmosphere, tucks of philosophic rumination, or fullness of garrulous comment. But they will like it too. “David” is the best thing of its kind that I have seen in current poetry—and for some benighted reason its kind is rare.

The other poems are uneven, but frequently reach the high level of the title piece. As a lyrical poet, Mr. Birney is chiefly an artist in vignette, a sharp and humorous observer. His humor on the whole is best when least directly satiric: satire makes him relapse into an idiom more suitable to prose. But he utters “conceits,” or deliberately strained images, with exactly the right kind of deadpan delivery, and his meticulous study of a slug, which should now be famous through its inclusion in Gustafson's Pelican anthology, is a shimmering rich texture of poetic wit from beginning to end. This indicates that he is not, in spite of the simplicity of “David,” a naive poet, and there are some brilliant flashes of imagery, of the kind that come from short-circuiting associations, notably in the briefer lyrics, such as “Monody on a Century” and “European Nocturne.” A tendency to a rather facile animism, of the “grassy hair of old hobo ocean” variety, is the only weakness of an important virtue.

Quizzical and ironic imagery is frequent in North American poetry: the source of it is usually the fascinating stare of an indifferent Nature which was here long before man and could very well get along without him. In such a poet as Robinson Jeffers, whose Pacific symbolism Mr. Birney occasionally recalls, this develops into a philosophy of tragic nihilism; in such a poet as E. J. Pratt, the immense debauchery of Nature, its gigantic appetite for life and its incredible waste of it, is transmuted into strange visions of submarine souses, pliocene Armageddons, and maddened savages with a “viscous melanotic current” coursing through their blood. The former results in slick, portentous, stereotyped oratory; the richer humor and greater subtlety of the latter is a spiritual truancy (see elsewhere in these pages) which refuses to over-simplify the imagination. In searching for the basis of...

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his own attitude, Mr. Birney gives us an example of each tendency. “Dusk on English Bay,” a vision of a spinning world at peace and at war, comes to a simple time-marches-on conclusion which seems to me rather frivolous: “Vancouver Lights,” ending in a tone of quiet resistance, is far more impressive.

The most obvious technical influence on Mr. Birney's work—he has gone somewhat out of his way to underline it—is the alliterative line and kenning of Old English. This is frequently claimed as an influence by modern poets, though many of them end up by producing imitations of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who, along with William Morris, started a vogue in the last century for bumping over offbeats, babbling bastard “Beowulf.” Here the influence is genuine, but the technique is difficult, and easily gets out of hand. It does so, for instance, when the alliteration becomes part of an over-elaborate pattern of repetition—the rhymes, for example, are sometimes harsh and insensitive—and it does so when the use of kennings and compound words makes the diction sound rather spiky and self-conscious. The rhythm also could sometimes be more fluent: there are too many run-on lines, especially in “David,” which have nowhere in particular to run to. I mention these details because this is not one of those impeccable and immaculate first volumes which “promise” nothing but more of the same. Just as a pregnant woman is in too interesting a condition to win a beauty contest, so the many and remarkable virtues of these poems are accompanied by faults which guarantee an increase of fertility. In case you didn't get the point the first time, for those who care about Canadian poetry this book is good enough to buy, not to borrow or get from a library.


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(Alfred) Earle Birney 1904-1995

Canadian poet, novelist, dramatist, and essayist.

The following entry presents criticism from 1942 to 1996 on Birney's life and works.

Birney was a prominent Canadian literary figure throughout much of the twentieth century. Best recognized for his pioneering work in contemporary and concrete poetry, Birney was also one of the first Canadian poets to embrace the everyday rhythms of language. As his poetic styles and interests changed throughout his five-decade career, he experimented with unconventional forms and structures, and unapologetically revised earlier works to reflect his evolving aesthetic sensibilities.

Biographical Information

Birney was born on May 13, 1904, in Calgary, where the surrounding region was still known as the Northwest Territories. He grew up close to the land and planned to make a living as a guide for hikers in the Rocky Mountains of Canada but instead was given the opportunity to attend the University of British Columbia. He graduated with a degree in English, and in 1926 he headed to Toronto for graduate school. The next year, armed with a master's degree and a new, leftist political identity, Birney traveled to Berkeley, California, where he began doctoral studies; these were interrupted by economic conditions of the Great Depression. He found a position at the University of Utah as an instructor in English, and he remained there for several years. Following a period of overseas travel and study, he returned to Canada and finished his doctoral work at the University of Toronto in 1936, then stayed for several years to teach English.

Throughout the 1930s, Birney's writing pursuits focused on the production of scholarly papers, political tracts, and news articles. After his marriage and the birth of a son in 1941, Birney began publishing verse in periodicals such as the Canadian Forum. His first book of poetry, David and Other Poems (1942), won the prestigious Governor General's medal for poetry. The same year he was assigned to an overseas post with the Canadian Army. He subsequently spent three years in England, Belgium, and the Netherlands and produced there some of his most critically acclaimed works. His war-time poetry, published in 1945 as Now Is Time, garnered a second Governor General's award.

With the war's end, Birney returned to Canada and began working for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, before accepting an invitation from the University of British Columbia to take up a professorship. During his affiliation with the university, which lasted from 1946 to 1965, Birney initiated a creative writing workshop that was the first of its kind in Canada. He also continued to travel and write, producing three more books of poetry, two novels, and a verse play, and editing several anthologies and collections of poetry, including Twentieth Century Canadian Poetry (1953). He also wrote travel features for popular magazines and began to take Canadian poetry to readers and audiences worldwide, living part-time in England, France, and Mexico, and traveling throughout South America, Asia, and Australia. His works began to embrace a global consciousness that preceded environmental social justice movements by a decade or more.

From the mid-1960s through the early 1980s, Birney traveled throughout Canada and the United States as writer-in-residence for numerous universities. He also began to experiment with diverse forms of literary expression that would lead him to embrace concrete poetry, sound poems, and other contemporary forms of poetic art. His literary output in these years included new collections of poetry, a collection of short stories and sketches, essays on the reading and writing of poetry, another verse play, and a volume of autobiography covering the years 1926 to 1979. His final book, Last Makings, was published in 1991; he had been revising it in 1987 when he suffered a stroke that left him disabled. He died in 1995 in Toronto.

Major Works

Although Birney wrote widely in several genres, he is best remembered as a poet. In the early works, David and Other Poems and Now Is Time he employed conventional structure and punctuation. As Birney's poetic style evolved, he began to experiment with the visual effects of using nontraditional spacing instead of punctuation, and he revised many of his early poems accordingly, substituting spaces and new line arrangements for conventional marks such as commas, semi-colons, and periods. This drew sharp disapproval from some critics, such as Hayden Carruth, who, in a review of Selected Poems: 1940-1966 (1966), termed Birney's experimentation “prosodic fiddle-faddle.” Further experimentation led to concrete poems and “shape” poems, which rely heavily on the use of drawings or the unconventional arrangement of text for a graphic effect; Alphabeings and Other Seasyours (1976) is a collection of these visual poems, many of which evolved from what Birney termed his “doodling.” Birney also experimented with the cadence of Canadian speech to create sound poems, and he collaborated with musicians in recordings and live performances of his sound poems.

The themes of love, war, nature, and satire appear consistently throughout Birney's poetry, although their treatment varies considerably from decade to decade. Approximately five chronological categories can be identified that span his career. The earliest poems have been characterized as romantic in content and style. These were followed by the works inspired by political activism and the war years. By the early to mid-1960s, Birney, a lifelong traveler, began publishing what have been called the “tourist abroad” poems; these were the works for which he gained an international reputation as a literary figure of consequence. The poems of Near False Creek Mouth (1964), described by critic John Robert Colombo as “not still pictures but motion pictures, in sound and colour,” exemplify this stage. Birney's fourth stage of poetic development resulted in his experimentation with concrete poetry and sound poems. Finally, Birney entered a reflective stage, during which he published more introspective works such as Fall by Fury (1978). Birney's final collection, Last Makings, brought together love poems he wrote during the last decade of his career, as well as never-published verse that had been written as early as 1930.

Critical Reception

Birney was not only considered Canada's leading poet during his lifetime, but also a valued cultural ambassador for his country. He received critical acclaim for his work as a poet, as well as for his encouragement of creativity in other poets and artists. While some critics disapproved of Birney's decision to revise some of his more traditional early works to conform to his evolving sense of poetic structure and form, others lauded the curiosity that led him to test the limits and definitions of poetry. Birney's visual and concrete poetry and other experimental forms were generally not well received by critics, but their overall assessment of his career forgave his forays into “styles and fashions that are unworthy of his real talents,” as wrote A. J. M. Smith. Writing in Canadian Literature, Fred Cogswell praised Birney's “ability to use forms derived from the whole tradition of poetry to express [ideas] brilliantly and freshly.” In Essays on Canadian Writing, critic George Woodcock acknowledged that while he found “the overtly experimental poems the least interesting of Birney's works,” he also believed that “it is his openness to the new and the unorthodox that has given Birney the freedom to find … the special voice and form appropriate to each situation.”

A. G. Bailey (review date 1950)

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SOURCE: Bailey, A. G. “New Books.” The Dalhousie Review 30 (1950): 205-08.

[In the following review, Bailey discusses Strait of Anian, which was published in 1948.]

Of the forty-six poems in this book, twenty-seven are republished from Mr. Birney's earlier collections, David and Other Poems, and Now Is Time, for both of which he was awarded the coveted Governor-General's Medal for poetry, in the first instance in 1942, and in the second in 1945. The present volume is thus one of selected poems and provides the means for assessing the author's character, depth, and range of experience as a poet, as well as the direction his art has taken since he first began to publish over a decade ago. The wide popularity that these poems have enjoyed springs in part from the fresh and immediate sensory appeal of their imagery, and in part from the author's conception of life as a high adventure to be met with courage, and in full knowledge of the odds. They thus represent a departure from much modern poetry in which peculiar states of the individual consciousness are explored and wrought into a neobaroque metaphor that baffles all those who have not succeeded in mastering that difficult language. His temper and his talent, one would guess, have led him through the realm of metaphysical symbol to one of action in space and time. His fusion of the lyric with the dramatic rather than the didactic, and his application of this technique to the great issues of human destiny, both directly in some poems, and allegorically in others, help to account for the new note he has succeeded in striking in recent poetry. His terse utterances grow naturally out of the matter which, in each case, he confronts. Through expressions like “varnished sand” in the poem “Gulf of Georgia” the reader sees what the poet has described without having his credulity strained or being shocked as with pyrotechnics. He often employs words that lack transcendental qualities, and thus in many of his best epithets he achieves a sensory sheerness. For other purposes, as in his treatment of elemental or human forces in conflict, his metaphors have the vigour, clarity and strength of his own mountains, and it is as though the rugged terrain of the western Canadian cordillera had entered into the poet's soul.

One cannot, in fact, speak of his choice of words and the way he forms his images as though these activities were unconnected with his attitudes towards man and nature. In most of his work there is little if any overt sentimentality. When he is most deeply moved, as by the predicament of man in an indifferent universe, or by some tragedy of human provenance, he is a master of his craft and his lines move with the inevitability of true poetry. When he lapses into sentimentality, which happily he rarely does, he seems to lose his customary sureness of touch, and indulges in such banal expressions as appear in line 2 of the final verse of “Invasion Spring.” His poems addressed to women often seem self-conscious, and without authenticity by comparison with poems like “David” and “For Steve,” in which the sentimental note does not obtrude at all and a fine control over the medium is maintained. The poignance of the grief over a lost comrade is heightened by the measure of restraint he achieves by simple statement or understatement, highly charged with emotion. What he cries out against is the senseless destruction of human life, and of the fine qualities of manhood, intelligence, kindness, understanding, vision and skill, but he is not without a desperate faith that the sacrifice, however heroic and, in a sense, however justified it may be in itself, has meaning in the larger human context. Ennoblement through sacrifice would not be meaningless:

          Since you who walked in freedom
And the ways of reason fought on our front,
We foresee the plot is solvable, the duel worthy.

This conviction emerges in the second of the two parts into which the book is divided and in which the poet gives literary form to the responses that men have made to the great contemporary sickness in the human family, of which the second World War was a terrible symptom. In the first he speaks for Canada and her waxing nationhood, but the two problems, national and oecumenical, are ultimately the same, because they spring from the more fundamental predicament that confronts humanity as a whole in the face of what appears to be a brutish and indifferent universe. His idea of nature is not the opposite of that of the early Romantic poets, such as Lampman in Canada, for whom the natural order was friendly and spiritually restorative, for what is insensate cannot be hostile. It is this attitude that reveals how the landscape of British Columbia has exerted a powerful impact upon the poet's consciousness, and has heightened that sense of the irrelevance of nature to human purposes which seems most plausible to a generation that has come to accept, in a spirit of disenchantment, the philosophical implications of the Darwinian thesis. In “David,” one of the finest poems yet written in this country, the human drama moves forward to its swift and tragic climax among the “unknowing cascades” and the “incurious clouds”. Elsewhere we are urged to think no more than we must

of the simple unhuman truth of this ocean,
that down deep below the lowest pulsing of primal cell
tar-dark and still
lie the bleak and forever capacious tombs of the sea.

When confronted with the crimes and the stupidities of brutalized men, he may take a grim delight in the thought that “The beautiful bright coyote” will outlast them all, but such reflections seem to release him from the slough of pessimism in which Hardy and Housman were caught. Far more positive than they, he affirms that man's soul is a nursery of qualities of transcendent worth, and neither the blind events of the physical world, nor the ephemeral character of human life can diminish the kingdom to which they belong. Only in terms of these qualities can human life have the meaning that Mr. Birney surely believes it has. To the extent that man transcends the conditions of his brutish origin, he deserves the title of humanity, but there has been an age-old struggle between the finest and best, to which all men may win, and the dark tide of savagery from the presence of which they may never completely free themselves:

men be swift to be mankind
or let the grizzly take.

The rise of fascism that issued in “twelve red years of rage” no more invalidates the fundamental tenets of civilization than does the evident reality of the world of beak and claw, but it shows how blurred and uncertain are the boundaries between the kingdom of man and that of the brute, and how hard man must yet strive to conquer the enemy in himself. For Mr. Birney leaves us in no doubt as to where the danger lies:

No one bound Prometheus. Himself he chained
and consumed his own bright liver.

In three related poems, “Hands,” “Dusk on the Bay,” and “Vancouver Lights,” the first written in 1939 and the other two early in the War, he expresses the despair that then possessed him as he pondered the spectacle of a self-destroying humanity. The theory of the freezing universe of contemporary astrophysics may have lurked in the background of his consciousness as he wrote “Vancouver Lights,” but the immediate occasion for the composition of all three poems, appears to have been the prospect, years before Hiroshima, of the extinction of homo sapiens, or at best the approach of a new Dark Age. In “Hands” the logic of the organic cycle is asserted to have no counterpart in the death of men. The idea of nature, in this poem, as an inchoate and elemental realm beyond good and evil, is symbolized by the “cold and unskilled cedar whose webbed claws” focus no bombsight, and by the balsam, and the alders that “are not of my flesh”. By contrast with these trees man appears as a stranger and a misfit in a universe to which his moral sense seems altogether alien. Man's tragedy seems to lie in the fact that as he has evolved he has found a moral order, essential to his humanity, which appears to be contradicted by the facts of the physical world in which, in his own peculiar and partly selfmade way, he is fated to live. The emergence of his moral sense has been accompanied by a skill in the fashioning of contrivances that have come to endanger all those things that, in his moments of sanity, he holds most dear. “Dusk on the Bay” and “Vancouver Lights” are both developed in terms of the symbols of light and darkness, but with opposite connotations. In the former, to be more accurate, the sun is not so much a symbol as an accompaniment of evil. The sun that “rushes down through Asian skies, garish with burst of shell and unarrested rocket” will eventually come to shatter the precious night that he describes in terms of the sights and sounds of a happy and ordered existence, typified by the bathers on the shore. The words that are used in the early lines to describe the activities of the peaceful Canadian night are later skilfully woven into the contrasted context of war. The legs of the bathers “unsexed by distance” and the “waving arms severed with twilight” become the “limbs unsexed and severed” by the bombs at “stricken dawn in England”. The night air that “lets fall a rain of quiet coolness on the flesh” becomes “the rain of iron cooling the flesh” to the temperature of death. The use of this technique of ambiguity is stark and moving in its effect on the reader, but it would prepare him imperfectly for the “epitaphic” forecast of cosmic tragedy in “Vancouver Lights.” This poem has not received the praise it deserves since its first publication, in an unrevised version, in the Canadian Review of Music and Art in 1942, perhaps because it has appeared to be less architectonic and not so closely woven in texture as “Hands” and “Dusk on the Bay.” Yet it contains some of the most powerful lines to be found in the whole range of contemporary poetry. Although Mr. Birney can work effectively with the minutiae of nature, as in “Slug in Woods,” his sensibility responds as fully to the challenge of a vast canvas as does that of Mr. E. J. Pratt, although he does not share the puckish and buoyant humour of the latter. In part the impact of this poem is due to the “terror of space” and the awe of “the changeless night” and “the stark ranges of nothing” which his images evoke, but it is also among other devices, due to the use, in an interstellar context, of words that commonly denote small objects. Infinity of space and time, personified by the Nubian, “wears for an evening's whim a necklace of nebulae”. In the encompassing night men are “the unique glowworms” or the “spark beleaguered by darkness”. The eye that looked out on the miracle of light, breaking for the first time the tyranny of the timeless dark, would come to guide the fashioning hand and reveal the promise of the knowledge of good and evil. If man were a cosmic accident, his light might be extinguished by the same means, but the hazard of which the poet is here speaking springs from the glory and the fatal flaw in man himself:

          These rays were ours,
We made and unmade them. Not the shudder of continents
doused us, the moon's passion, nor the crash of comets.
In the fathomless heat of our dwarfdom, our dream's combustion,
we contrived the power, the blast that snuffed us.

The author's deep compassion is concealed in this proud and wistful boast which he made as the world prepared to plunge further into the abyss of war. In these poems he does not explicitly affirm any grounds for hope, but in the poems written during the next few years one becomes conscious of a growing conviction that the holocaust may have meaning after all. It is in this hope that we must live, or know life lost.

Principal Works

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David and Other Poems 1942

Now Is Time 1945

Strait of Anian 1948

Trial of a City and Other Verse (verse play and poems) 1952

Ice Cod Bell or Stone 1962

Near False Creek Mouth 1964

Selected Poems: 1940-1966 1966

Memory No Servant 1968

Pnomes, Jukollages and Other Stunzas 1969

Poems 1969

Rag & Bone Shop 1971

The Bear on the Delhi Road 1973

What's So Big about Green? 1973

Collected Poems (two volumes) 1975

Alphabeings and Other Seasyours (visual poems) 1976

Ghost in the Wheels 1977

Fall by Fury 1978

Copernican Fix 1985

Last Makings 1991

Turvey (novel) 1949, unexpurgated edition, 1976

Twentieth Century Canadian Poetry (anthology) 1953

Down the Long Table (novel) 1955

The Creative Writer (essays) 1966

The Cow Jumped over the Moon: The Writing and Reading of Poetry (literary criticism) 1972

The Damnation of Vancouver (verse play) 1977

Big Bird in the Bush (short stories and sketches) 1978

Spreading Time: Remarks on Canadian Writing, 1926-1979 (autobiography) 1980

Essays on Chaucerian Irony [with Beryl Rowland] (literary criticism) 1985

W. E. Fredeman (essay date 1960)

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SOURCE: Fredeman, W. E. “Earle Birney: Poet.” In Critical Views on Canadian Writers: Earle Birney, Bruce Nesbitt, pp. 107-14. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd., 1974.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in the British Columbia Library Quarterly in 1960, Fredeman offers a critical overview of the first decades of Birney's literary career.]

The eve of publication of the Selected Poems of Earle Birney1 offers a convenient opportunity for re-evaluating the poetic output of one of British Columbia's—indeed, one of Canada's—best known and most highly praised literary figures. Coming rather late to a literary career—after an apprenticeship of hack work, graduate study, odd jobs, and miscellaneous teaching, at the Universities of California, Utah, Toronto, and British Columbia—Birney, at the age of thirty-eight, was suddenly catapulted to national recognition with the publication of David and Other Poems in 1942. The combined forces of a variegated background, a decade of depression, and the gathering storm of World War II proved precisely the alembic to stir the poetic sensitivities of the young academic. With the attainment, for the first time, of something resembling stability and security—his doctorate, a lectureship at the University of Toronto, and, most important, the literary editorship of Canadian Forum—Birney began to publish his first serious poems in the late thirties.

The intervening twenty years have been fruitful for Earle Birney, bringing him increased recognition in the form of critical praise and literary awards, and the more tangible benefits of grants-in-aid and scholarships. They have also been productive: four volumes of verse, two novels, one anthology, another editorship (Canadian Poetry Magazine, 1946-48) and a welter of miscellaniana. Since 1946, Birney has been a Professor of English at the University of British Columbia.

Now, Birney is preparing to launch an edition of his poems, selected, revised and edited by himself. Although authors' selections are always risky, they do give the critic an advantage that he ordinarily lacks, because, more than individual volumes, they stand as manifestoes of artistic creed, enabling the critic to assume a synthesis not always apparent in single publications. This is particularly true in Birney's case, since his previous four volumes of poetry, with the exception of Trial of a City, have been cumulative, each adding new poems to a foundation of previously published and tested verse. However, the forthcoming edition, comprising some fifty-five poems and his verse play (roughly one-half of Birney's total poetry) will, in a way, be patterned from his previous publications, since, in addition to the forty-five poems drawn from earlier volumes, it will contain ten poems either previously unpublished or previously uncollected. The selections—and rejections—together with the often severe revisions of earlier “established” verse will prove most vital to Birney's critical reputation. However, the most salient fact about the appearance of the volume is that it heralds a new period of creativity, terminating eight years of silence in what seems to have been, for various reasons, a period of poetic sterility.

As a combination of the depression, the impending war, and his own wide background provided Birney with the necessary impetus for writing, so they, together with the left wing political idealism that made of him during the thirties an ardent Trotskyite, provided him with his basic themes. Birney's poems fall into five categories: descriptions of nature, satires, those dealing with war—either imminent or actual—love poems, and those built on narrative or dramatic situations involving one or more of the other four. Thematically, however, they overlap without clear lines of distinction; always they are autobiographical and extremely personal.2

The central theme in almost all of Birney's poetry is Love, and the most dominant symbol, as well as the controlling image, War. Reiterated throughout the major portion of his poetry, these dichotomous extremes of human impulse mirror the ironic and ambiguous role of man in a universe over which he is never quite master, even in his greatest moments of triumph, and of which, even in his most miserable failures, he is never quite pawn. Caught up in the Puritanical dilemma of sin and responsibility, mankind has at its disposal only Universal Love to combat the atavism inherent both in nature and in humanity itself. Birney's message, following consistently a recurring pattern of idealized optimism and hope, fear, and idealized disillusionment and pessimism, might be succinctly phrased in Auden's similar admonition: “We must love one another or die.” As Birney himself puts it in “Time-Bomb”:

O men be swift to be mankind
          or let the grizzly take.

The simplicity of Birney's dominant and persistent theme is intensified and made doubly poignant by the present forces which threaten mankind. War having become nearly obsolete, self-preservation must give way to the higher course of universal love, for man is faced not only with the destruction of his individual self but with the possible annihilation of his species as well.

Birney's poetry is obviously didactic, but rarely in the pejorative sense, for it seldom preaches. A personal involvement in mankind's dilemma, and in the inevitable seeking for solution, prevents the poet's offering patented panaceas for mankind's (and therefore his own) ills; rather, he extends a prophetic hope that tomorrow—if, remembering yesterday, we, living today, are willing to prepare for the future—may be better:3

Somehow, still, we may blow straight,
come flowing into the couloir's caves,
funnelling into the gullies, battering
the bright rock with the hail of our will.
O we may yet roar free, unwhirl,
sweeping great waves into the deepening bores,
bringing the ocean to boom and fountain and siren,
tumbling the fearful clouds into a great sky wallowing,
cracking the mountain apart—
the great wind of humanity blowing free, blowing
through, streaming over the future.(4)

It is the breadth of the solution offered by the poet—a broad humanism positing individual involvement and responsibility combined with an insistence on the absolute autonomy of the human will, expressed with masculine forcefulness in both imagery and diction—that protects Birney from the snare of sentimental didacticism:

The compassed mind must quiver north
          though every chart defective;
there is no fog but in the will,
          the iceberg is elective.(5)

Desmond Pacey is undoubtedly right when he says that Birney's greatest strength as a poet lies in his “capacity movingly and convincingly to express a persistent faith in man's power to make or unmake his own destiny”.6

In Birney's case the question of evaluation is difficult. Although never a poetaster, he has been unable to sustain a quality throughout any of his four volumes.7 However, each contains poems of exceptional ability.8 “David” is regarded by most critics as Birney's finest poem, by many as a masterpiece in its own right. In “David” the close caps perfectly a series of near climaxes, and in the final line—“That day, the last of my youth, on the last of our mountains”—there is truly magic, as E. K. Brown saw: “an unpredictable extension of meaning, … at one stroke raising the experience of the poem to another level where pain and constraint and self-reproach are no longer matter-of-fact but full of tranquillizing imaginative suggestion.”9 So often in Birney's poetry the greatness of an individual line or lines completely overshadows the poem as a whole. In “David” this is not true; the climactic close reinforces and enriches all that precedes it. In lesser poems, however, it has a weakening effect, especially when it occurs at the beginning, as in “Man is a Snow”:

I tell you the wilderness we fell
is nothing to the one we breed.

When its position climaxes a generally poor poem, as in “Within These Caverned Days”, it becomes merely a facile device that hardly compensates for the lack of quality throughout the poem.10 Generally speaking, Birney's forte is the succinct, elliptical, highly compressed, tightly woven poem in which unity can be sustained without affectation or artificiality. To this category belong such poems as “Introvert” (in many ways one of his finest poems), “Time-Bomb”, “Gulf of Georgia”, “Slug in Woods”, “From the Hazel Bough”, and “Ulysses”, a kind of sixteen-line Meredithian sonnet, concluding with the synthesizing couplet:

but the bow is yours and you must bend it
          or you'll never finish what Homer began.

In the same way, “Hands”, somewhat longer than the other poems cited, demonstrates Birney's remarkable facility for tightening and unifying the poem by the use of the epigrammatic couplet:

We are not of these woods, we are not of these woods,
our roots are in autumn, and store for no spring.

Birney's weakest poems are those which are purely topical expressions of passing or changing social conditions, such as “For Steve”, “Joe Harris”, and “Man on a Tractor”.11 Many of the war poems, inspired by temporary conditions, seem cold and remote when compared with “Hands” and the paired poems “Dusk on the Bay” and “Vancouver Lights”, in which Birney is seeking not to record realistically the conditions of the moment but to get behind the human condition in a world in which man is threatened by forces against which he has no protection save the robes of his own mutual humanity. Birney's satirical poems, most of which are topical, fail for the same reasons. Occasionally successful, as in “Canada: Case History” and “Anglosaxon Street”, they are too frequently marred by self-consciousness, flippancy, and artificiality. Poems such as “Ballad of Mr. Chubb”, “The Monarch of the Id”, “Christmas Comes”—even “Restricted Area”, Birney's trenchant satire on anti-Semitism—fail because of their obvious embarrassment to the poet, who, throughout, is making a nervous attempt at objectivity. It is the failure of the satire that makes Trial of a City and Other Verse Birney's weakest volume, despite the near-brilliancy of the verse play which gives the book its title.

“Trial of a City” should not be lightly dismissed by anyone interested in understanding Birney's work. In many ways it was the culmination of all that he had written between 1937 and 1952, for obviously on trial is not only Vancouver but civilization itself and all the accomplishments of mankind. In this sense, it is one of the most universal pieces that Birney has written. In the play the present has been doomed by the future, and an inquiry has been called at which only witnesses from the past may offer testimony. The counsel for the present, an insensitive everyman named Legion, is singularly unaware of any of the important issues with which mankind has for centuries been involved; rather he is a devoted Pangloss of the present, hymning, and understanding only, the materialistic side of man's endeavours:

We're the hub of Tomorrow, the Future's baby,
We're here to stay, and I dont mean maybe.

and peremptorily dismissing any criticism of his materialistic values. Against his opponent from the future, Gabriel Powers, Legion's arguments “defending civilization” are totally ineffectual, and one recognizes in his condemnation of the Snow-kwee Salish—that “These fellows never learned defence because they'd nothing to defend”—both his own and society's damnatur.

In the end, Powers is outstripped, not by Legion but by a Mrs. Anyone, an unghostly citizen of the world who refuses to stand witness for Legion's picture of civilization. Bearing vociferous testimony to the humanity which she truly symbolizes, she dispels Legion and asserts the positive values of mankind. To Powers' indictment, “But what is peace if all the earth's a gassy Jacktown?” she replies, “It still has its becoming.” “How could I know,” she asks, “without the threat of death, I lived?” The end of the play restores the time-sequence that Birney has so often insisted upon in his poetry: the present, growing out of the past, determines the future. In that sequence, which Legion's complacent acceptance of the present denied, lies the hope of mankind. “The only future's what I make each hour,” Mrs. Anyone tells Powers:

Without my longer Will, my stubborn boon,
You'd have no mate to check with but the cornered moon.
It's my defiant fear keeps green my whirling world.

So completely does this play summarize thematically the whole of Birney's poetry, he has chosen it to conclude his forthcoming volume.

It is never an easy task to arrest the creative process temporarily and evaluate a living, producing poet; to predict the consideration which the future may offer a contemporary is fatuous. This is particularly true in Birney's case, since he is first of all a verse experimentalist who almost always stimulates opposite reactions in different critics. Birney's chief poetic flaw lies in a strong academic tendency which leads, on the one hand, to the experimental transfer of archaic meter and diction to such poems as “Anglosaxon Street” and “Mappemounde” and the introduction of Long Will of Langland to “Trial of a City”, and on the other, to a complexity of diction and an elliptical succinctness that makes his poetry, superficially at least, obscure. The principal quality of Birney's poetry is undoubtedly its sharp pictorial imagery, abetted by a sensitive and acute feeling for both the sound and the meaning of words.

E. K. Brown once commented on the “authentic originality” of Birney's poetry:

… he owes nothing at all to earlier Canadian writing and scarcely anything—when he is fully himself—to recent verse anywhere else. He has a harsh and intense sensibility which makes his pictures and rhythms fresh and living, and his technical accomplishment is brilliant, at times bewildering.12

Another critic, W. P. Percival,13 has spoken of Birney as “poetically athletic” and noted the sharpness of the impact made by his verse. Desmond Pacey has felt in Birney's poetry a “reserve power”,14 and has seen in it “a useful synthesis of all the major tendencies up to his time.”15 Contradictory as these judgments are—covering a span of years from 1943 to 1958—they testify to the essential fluidity of critical opinion that must always exist in evaluating the work of any contemporary.


  1. To be published later this year by McClelland & Stewart in Toronto, and by Abelard-Schuman in London and New York. [This collection was not published.—Ed.]

  2. Desmond Pacey, in the most recent critical evaluation of Birney (Ten Canadian Poets, Toronto, Ryerson, 1958, pp. 293-326), misses the point. Fond of labels, he tags Birney “chronicler”. “As applied to a poet,” Pacey explains, “the label of chronicler implies that he is primarily a public rather than a private poet, that he seeks to be objective rather than subjective, that he is concerned with the fate of society rather than with the state of his own soul” (p. 294). This rather casual lumping together of the material, the point of view, and the motivation or intention of the poem forms a specious generalization which fails to bear out the definition it seeks to make. One wonders, initially, what a “public poet” might be: Tennyson in his laureate poems might qualify at one extreme; Eddie Guest at the other. Certainly a “social” poet (which seems to be what Mr. Pacey means) need not be “public”. As to objectivity, one need only examine “David”, “Man is a Snow”, “Introvert”, “This Page My Pigeon”, and “Canada: Case History”, five quite distinct types in the Birney canon, to recognize immediately the extremely private nature of the poems and the highly subjective experiences, both actual and psychological, which they describe. Finally, the sense of involvement in society and the case made in the poems for individual responsibility in the ultimate fate of society and mankind is more personal, if not more introverted, than most “my heart is a singing-bird” poetry. “Chronicler”, as Mr. Pacey defines it, seems incorrect as applied to Birney; in its more usual sense (and Mr. Pacey belabours the superficial fact that Birney's poems are often topical and focused on the Canadian scene) it is an oversimplification.

    In labelling Birney “chronicler”, it may be that the critic was greatly influenced by Birney's two novels, Turvey (Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1949) and Down the Long Table (Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1955), the former a humorous parody of the war experiences of the Canadian counterpart to Private Hargrove, the latter a rather abortive chronicle of Canada in the period of the great depression. The novels depend, both in narrative and in thematic structure, on the contextual details of the Canadian scene during the depression and the war, and thereby tend to be much more documentary than his poetry, in which the environment is often no more than an imagistic springboard for the emotions and ideas conveyed by the poem. In his novels, Birney seems everything that he is not in his poetry: chronicler, extremely nationalistic, self-conscious. The meeting ground between the two creative roles seems to exist solely in the intensely autobiographical nature of both.

  3. The element of Time must never be lost sight of in Birney's poetry. Apart from its thematic importance in individual poems, it was used as the structural division in Now Is Time. For its application in “Trial of a City”, see below.

  4. “… or a Wind”, sequel to “Man is a Snow”.

  5. “World Conference”. Retitled “Conference of Heads” in the forthcoming edition.

  6. Op. cit., p. 309.

  7. Many of the poems discussed below have been either thoroughly revised or omitted in the forthcoming edition.

  8. I do not intend to discuss Birney as a “Canadian” poet. As a qualification expressing anything other than nationality, it seems to me to have no critical validity, although it has become increasingly an apologetic epithet among critics too often saddled with what they consider inferior verse. Many critics tend to confuse “regionalisms” with nationalistic tendencies, belabouring the obvious fact that a poet will incorporate into his verse the environment—natural, political, psychological—with which he is most familiar. But a good poem is a good poem, quite independent of national origin. The impulse and experience of “Tintern Abbey” would have been equally exciting, irrespective of Wordsworth's nationality. It may be that Birney has won more fame in Canadian letters than he might have realized in a more competitive intellectual climate, but certainly he would be regarded as a serious poet in any country.

  9. On Canadian Poetry, Toronto, Ryerson, 1943, p. 77-78.

  10. Many of these weaknesses are recognized by Birney himself. The above couplet has been deleted in the revision of “Man is a Snow” and the entire poem has been substantially rewritten. The loss of the couplet, one of his best, is unfortunate, but the poem is greatly improved. “Within These Caverned Days” has been excluded from the volume.

  11. Confirming the severe critical light in which Birney has recently re-examined his poetry, all of the topical poems mentioned in this paragraph have been omitted from the forthcoming edition. Those few examples of topical poetry which have been allowed to remain have been brought up to date by revision.

  12. Op. cit., p. 78.

  13. “Earle Birney”, in Leading Canadian Poets, ed. W. P. Percival, Toronto, Ryerson, 1948, pp. 23-29.

  14. Creative Writing in Canada, Toronto, Ryerson, 1952, p. 141.

  15. Ten Canadian Poets, p. 326.

From the British Columbia Library Quarterly, 23 (1960), pages 8-15. By permission of the British Columbia Library Quarterly.

Paul West (essay date summer 1962)

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SOURCE: West, Paul. “Earle Birney and the Compound Ghost.” Canadian Literature, no. 13 (summer 1962): 5-14.

[In the following essay, West discusses Ice Cod Bell or Stone, placing it within the context of the poet's previous works of verse and fiction.]

No pomp or poet's pose: just a tall, self-contained self-analyst dominating the lectern and mixing shrewd points with occasional smiling mutiny, as if to suggest a terrible soul beneath: not professional or vatic, but a gently wild man born in Calgary in 1904. That is how he must have appeared, as lecturer and reciter, during a multitude of performances in North America, Japan, Mexico, India and London. It is typical of him that he should speak of “saying” his poems, display a genial regard for beer-parlours and write, he supposes, to prevent himself from going mad.

The poet in this poet-professor has always delightedly fastened upon the unfamiliar: not to show off with, not because the Pacific Coast bores him or because he finds the ordinary too difficult, but because he has always been something of an animist. For him the temperate Canadian pastoral kept leaping into pageantry, bestiary and something close to the heraldic. We could liken him to his favourite Chaucer: voracious for the detail of contemporary life and yet, while musing on and exposing foible, lunging after ghosts, the miraculous or the shimmering timeless. The Birney of “Anglosaxon Street” is an inspector of human customs:

Then by twobit magic                    to muse in movie,
unlock picturehoard,                    or lope to alehall,
soaking bleakly                              in beer, skittleless.
Home again to hotbox                    and humid husbandhood,
in slumbertrough adding                    sleepily to Anglekin.

The pastiche disguises nothing: this is the flavour of Chaucer but with more feel for the motion of life than Chaucer has; the method is compactly allusive, as if he wants to transform everything. And the key to Birney's power, as to the disciplines and rigours he has imposed on himself, is his urge towards myth. This is why his Canadian pastorals never quite succeed. Because he is a lover of myth, he tends naturally to the dislocated reality of mountaineering and the lost reality of the Indians: for instance, the title-poem of his first book of poems, David and Other Poems (1942) is peculiarly diffuse yet crammed with exact data. The data is placed exactly nowhere:

One Sunday on Rampart's arete a rainsquall caught us,
And passed, and we clung by our blueing fingers and bootnails
An endless hour in the sun, not daring to move
Till the ice had steamed from the slate. And David taught me
How time on a knife-edge can pass with the guessing of fragments
Remembered from poets, the naming of strata beside one. …

One might call it the inevitable Canadian metaphor, this siting of particulars in the vast blank. And whatever one calls it—whatever it tells us specially of Canada—it keeps falling short. Supposed to refer universally because it is of no region, it misses the suggestive power of such lines as these of Eliot:

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in the sunlight, into the Hofgarten. …

Eliot's two tent-pegging references—the colonnade and the Hofgarten—complicate reality all over again; they restore whole worlds to us, whereas Birney's descriptive sequence followed by that not very firm allusion to the poets merely insulates us. We have to set to work in order to get beyond the phantoms of atavism, the primitive pattern.

Having objected to the delicious particulars of such poems as “David” I have also to confess that I find the philosophical Birney (strong in David and Other Poems and repeated in more senses than one in the second volume, Now Is Time, 1945) just as far from enlightening me as I find, say, the Speech of the Salish Chief in Trial of a City (1952) a bit fusty, not a little fustian. Much of the early Birney is an express of vivid description with philosophical baggage to follow by the next train. There is no synthesis; but in his deliberate habit of reprinting earlier poems in the context of new ones there is an effort meriting great sympathy. It is Birney trying to put a world together: now blurring with general ideas, now thrusting detail (either urban or pastoral) into the middle of philosophising. He cannot keep the pastoral intact, he knows, and the presence in Now Is Time, which is mostly war poems and excellent ones at that, of philosophical poems from David warns us that he is groping after something: a fusion, an amalgam, a compound. Again, in Strait of Anian (1948) he juxtaposed his poetic past and his present, and in Trial of a City turned to satirical fantasy and recaptured the mordant note of some poems in David.

This progress is worth pursuing in further detail: it crazy-paved the way for what is Birney's finest and most recent achievement, Ice Cod Bell or Stone, the very title of which suggests a miscellany rammed together; a reconcilable quartet. He has approached it by finding various modes of expression variously unsatisfactory. First, the remote and straitened reality of “David” in which the conversations seemed hardly artificial enough: “but he cried, louder, ‘No, Bobbie! Don't ever blame yourself; You can last.’ He said only, ‘Perhaps … For what? A wheelchair, Bob?’” Then the war poems, with an imagery that knocks us over before we have time to assume any attitude at all:

The clusters of children, like flies, at the back of messhuts,
or groping in gravel for knobs of coal,
their legs standing like dead stems out of their clogs.

And then the satirical semi-dramatic, the vocal equivalent of myth: the poet is seeking again the movement of conversation, trying to find an idiom and inflexion to partner the jumble he has now acquired of Seal Brother, Hell, salmon, seawolves, the Tide of the Thimbleberries, cetegrande, popcorn, “Narvik's blanching hulks”, the “rotograved lie”, the slug's “greentipped taut horns of slime”, “dying Bering, lost in fog” and lilies growing their pungent bulbs unprompted.

After a silence of ten years he finds his way out in Ice Cod Bell or Stone, through a loose combination of voices. There is the deliberate patience of the professional gazer: as in “El Greco: Espolito”:

The carpenter is intent on the pressure of his hand
on the awl, and the trick of pinpointing his strength
through the awl to the wood, which is tough.

The flat tone and meticulous eye seem to insulate the horror from us without, oddly enough, soothing us one bit. The point is well taken because we are allowed no guesswork. Because we are not the intended victims (not on that wood anyway) Birney deprives us of vicarious pain. Contrast this cool recital with such ventriloquism as the following:

Ah but I saw her ascend up in the assendupping breeze
There was a cloudfall of Kewpids
their glostening buttums twankling

That comes from a poem called “Mammorial Stunzas for Aimee Simple McFarcin”; not far from Eliot's Aristophanic melodrama, but closer than Eliot ever is to illustrious vernacular and rendered with a Dickensian relish for caricature. Just listen to this:

Jesus man what did you expect
Queen Liliuokalani spreadeagled on a tapa mat?
Sure they got a farm in Diamond Head crater this
a big place state cap world tour—
but any guy dont like Waikiki say we got
more catamarans surfboats fishspearin palmclimbin
than all them natives saw in a thousand
years waitin around for us okay maybe the hula

The book displays three principal idioms: cool meditation studded with vivid detail, and pastiche of raw vernacular; these tend to slide into each other when the poet is empathising hard or really wanting the contrast of two points of view. The third is represented by a few poems in foundering, chaotic typography the point of which—presumably visual enactment—escapes me almost entirely. All three idioms, however, tell us a great deal about Birney the rebel. He is repudiating the professorial sage, the mug tourist and (I think) the Birney who shrinks from typographical trickery and therefore forces himself to attempt it. There is no need to choose between Birney the eloquent and reflective intelligence and Birney the mimic; in each role he is anxiously trying to relate himself to the world—and with gratifying success, all the more so when he deepens a poem by transcending while evoking the academic mode:

Lo as I pause in the alien vale of the airport
fearing ahead the official ambush
a voice languorous and strange as these winds of Oahu
calleth my name and I turn to be quoited in orchids. …

The mimicry is the fact, more or less, and the comment is the endlessly interpreting mind. Sometimes they are sandwiched in an impacted conversation:

But arent there towns in Mexico more av-? Dear madam,
Actopan is a town more average than mean.
You may approach it on a sound macadam. …

Always, however, whether or not the mimicry is full-blooded or tame, the conversations—like the personae, the academic-sounding exercises, the brilliant vignettes of Japan, Mexico, Siam, are metaphors for the essential loneliness of any articulate observer. The mimicry is the lunge out of oneself, the effort to transpose oneself without however losing the advantages of intelligence.

Ice Cod Bell or Stone is a conspectus of the poet's honesty while he strives to be more than a tourist in a world of gaudy surfaces and fraying skins. No-one anywhere is treated more impersonally than the tourist, and this book is a record of being a geographical and spiritual tourist. Observe the names, weird and unfriendly, which populate the Mexican reservation in this volume: Najarít, Ajijíc, Irapuato, Pachucan, Tepoztlán, Tehauntepec. This poet responds acutely to the out-of-the-way; apart from the twelve poems about Mexico, which must almost all of them rank among his best, there are many novel themes or points of departure: a bear on the Delhi road, Captain Cook, El Greco, a tavern by the Hellespont, Ellesmereland, Kyoto, a Bangkok boy, two poems by Mao Tse-Tung, Wake Island, Honolulu, Yellowstone, and (that telling mutilation) Aimee Simple McFarcin. By contrast the few Canadian poems seem less mature: quiet demonstrations of fidelity tucked in between bouts with seductive haunts where life is more intense.

Yet I do not think Birney yields to the meretricious or pursues novelty for novelty's sake (except typographically). In one poem called “Can. Lit.” he explains that

We French, we English, never lost our civil war,
endure it still, a bloodless civil bore;
no wounded lying about, no Whitman wanted.
It's only by our lack of ghosts we're haunted.

It is precisely that lack of ghosts which emerges in the Canadian poems in this collection and which handicapped the early Birney until he went to war. Even this haunting poem about a tree seems no more, finally, than a punctuation mark added to a vast meaningless process:

Then the white frosts crept back. I took
to slipping out when no one looked
and poured the steaming crescent of my pee
over the shivering body of my tree.
That brown offering seemed to satisfy;
a warm tan mounted to her head.

The tan is a substitute for those ghosts. Significant too is the poem which gives the title:

Explorers say that harebells rise
from the cracks of Ellesmereland
and cod swim fat beneath the ice
that grinds its meagre sands
No man is settled on that coast
The harebells are alone
Nor is there talk of making man
from ice cod bell or stone.

It is all “say” and “alone”; he evokes a land of little purchase. He is supposed to deal with a country upon which the history of man's failures and triumphs is hardly even recorded. Phantom hypotheses make a poor show alongside those who

… came chattering and dust-red from Asia
to these wharfstones, a tipsy Xenophon in tow. …

or that small Japanese boy with his kite:

tall in the bare sky and huge as Gulliver
a carp is rising golden and fighting
thrusting its paper body up from the fist
of a small boy on an empty roof higher
and higher into the winds of the world.

“It is not easy to free”, one poem says, “myth from reality”; we might have expected that from Birney. It is no surprise either that he appears with just a few poems on a country whose main reality is the Great Outdoors, and then seeks ballast in more storied countries. And yet, even allowing that he has a distinct point to make about being at home abroad and yet never belonging there, I feel somewhat uneasy about Ice Cod Bell or Stone. I feel prompted to ask: Has he done as ingeniously, as vividly, as boldly, by Canada as he might have done? All great northern boredoms and ice vacancies apart, surely this raw material from the only poem about modern North America could have yielded something more arresting:

wordswords are oozing and ooshing from the mouths of all
your husbands saying SPACEWAR and FIGGERS DONT and EGG
HEADS and WY and plashing on the                    of                    national
buses and dribbling on barbecues the slick floors of
autocourts saying WALLSTREET saying BIGSTICK and TAXES
                              and REDS

The acerb satires of Cummings and Irving Layton are more carefully calculated than this. Birney is quick to point out that Mexican strawberries resemble “small clotting hearts”; but is there no Canadian version of that, or of this?

El Capitan Jasón Castilla y Mordita
shoulders his golden braiding through the shitten air,
rolls in a fugue of sporting up the Street
of Games—crossing the already strabismic
eye of the chess-carver tiptapping in his brick
cave—and swings at the Lane of Roses. …

The English poet, D. J. Enright, has written of modern Japan in the same kind of idiom: raw, discordant, with close-ups that carry a climate and generalizations that go sour even while being made. But Enright has written, in that same idiom, about the English Black Country. Surely when a poet has so brilliant a technique as Birney has, it is a pity that he doesn't focus on the homely palpable, the squalid next-door.

I can't help thinking Ice Cod Bell or Stone a bit of a poet's holiday; I might even say an excursion into idyll—not idyll in the absolute sense but, comparatively speaking, idyll in the sense that the exotic (as Byron proved) makes more impact for less work. In other words, Birney has got a start from the exotic and redeemed himself by displaying so magnificent a technique that we know he never needs the exotic anyway. The over-familiar will serve him just as well; and it is surely the over-familiar that the poet has to teach us to see as if we have never encountered it before. Here is a man who has gone abroad and shot scores of zebras, impala and elephant because, it seems, his guns cannot touch moose.

All the same, I can see why Birney does as he does. Poets please themselves anyway. And those Mexican ghosts enable him to inherit myth while dealing with daily reality whereas Birney the Canadian realist inherits only a few vague sideshows:

O mammoma we never forguess you
and your bag blue sheikel-getting ayes
loused, lost from all hallow Hollowood O
Aimee Aimee Tekel Upharsin

Birney's Mexico is dry, foetid, fly-blown, cruel, pauper-thick, tequila-eased, lottery-optimistic, tourist-pestered and legend-heavy:

Wholehearted Aztecs used this isle
for carving out the cores of virgins.
Cortés, more histrionic, purified it
with a fort and modernized the Indians
in dungeons contrived to flood each time
the tide was high.

History has bled to death there, but so it has in Rome, and there is much in Rome that is not imperial. It may be an advantage to a poet to have a theme with the grandeur or pain of history about it, but it should not be an essential. Otherwise the poet will become a mere historiographer. In one of his best poems the Italian poet Eugenio Montale makes highly effective use of a popular song, “Adios Muchachos”; Eliot's throbbing taxi is sinisterly eloquent and so are Pound's excerpts from headlines. If modern Canada has no legend, then the opportunities for imagism are considerable. Present the thing, for once, in terms of itself.

I feel supported in these thoughts by Birney's own practice as a novelist. I am thinking not so much of Turvey (1949), his military comedy, but of the less applauded Down the Long Table (1955), which is primarily concerned with Leftist activities in Toronto and Vancouver. It opens with a public hearing where Professor Saunders, tired Canadian radical and specialist in mediæval English at a Mormon college in Utah, is denying un-American activities. But once a rebel. … The novel plods back over his picaresque career: as a young lecturer, quitting both Mormon college and pregnant mistress; pursuing a Ph.D. in Toronto; muddled politics, muddled love, bumming across Canada on freight trains in order to start a Third International in Vancouver; donnishly quizzing the layabouts of the South Vancouver Workers' Educational Army; eventually returning to Utah, respectability and a safe chair (now having his doctorate). With less documentary purpose and more panache this might have been a disturbing and savage book. Birney separates his chapters with excerpts from newspapers, and this Dos Passos technique surely belongs in his poetry too. It proves he has some feeling for life's miscellaneous and kaleidoscopic quality and therefore too for such techniques as we find in poets as different as Eliot, William Carlos Williams and Pound. (Obviously Birney has enjoyed and learned from his Joyce; Aimee Simple McFarcin comes to us by that route.) Down the Long Table also reveals a flair, as I suggested earlier apropos of “Anglosaxon Street”, for the motion and feel of life: a wilder Chaucer. And this flair, combined with the by no means idealizing or evasive eye intently turned on Mexico in Ice Cod Bell or Stone, is just what most Canadian poets lack. Irving Layton is too self-consciously tough; Jay Macpherson and James Reaney are too academic in flavour; Louis Dudek, if anyone other than Birney, has been close to what I am specifying, and his magazine Delta regularly offers samples of the right thing, although these are sometimes carelessly put together.

Birney alone, I feel, at present, has the necessary equipment. His sense of pageantry curbed by a gritty realism, he apprehends the squalid or the dull with visionary zest. Take this, for instance, from Ice Cod Bell or Stone:

those ladies work at selling hexametric chili,
and all their husbands, where the zocalo is shady,
routinely spin in silent willynilly
lariats from cactus muscles; as they braid they
hear their normal sons in crimson shorts go shrilly
bouncing an oval basketball about the square—

The power of that is not in the exotica but in one phrase, “all their husbands”, which suggests in the echo of that popular-song fragment—“where the zocalo is shady” an absolute, almost preposterous vision of labour. All the husbands (as in the poem quoted earlier) are collected up and frozen into a helix of work, rather like those streams of soaring and diving souls in William Blake's drawings. It is a microcosm: mysterious women obedient to occult routine; their husbands, all of them, animated by something heavy—all the suet in suetude; and the “normal” sons not yet conscripted but devising their timekiller just the same. It is a most original and graphic piece of summary poetry: tough enough to stand a little experiment I tried by altering a few words:

Those ladies work at selling Pentagonic jelly,
and all their husbands, where the conifer is shady,
routinely spin in silent willynilly
lariats of smoke from new Havanas; as they fume they
hear their normal sons in boxer shorts go shrilly
bouncing an oval basketball across the border—

A small homage to Birney the satirist. But a presumption and defensible only because I think poetry ought almost always to be contaminated by the great deal of our living that is ugly, awkward or vapid. Ice, cod, bell and stone belie the book, are more pastoral than the symbols Birney manages best, and more Canadian-sounding than the book's contents. They remind us that the most characteristically Canadian thing is the Canadian landscape; cities, on the other hand, merge together. One would like to see Birney at the automat or the supermarket; if he can tackle a diaper, as he does in the present collection, then the rest is easy. Our civilization is unlikely to restore itself to a life based exclusively on ground-roots and the pasturing of animals.

Let us hope that Birney's proposed trips to the Caribbean and Latin America are intended to give him an objective view of the home image, for a graphic synopsis to come, with the whole of the world jumbled together on the poet's own planet. Ice Cod Bell or Stone marks a tremendous access of vision and technique, and proves that the lack of ghosts is, properly speaking, immaterial to a poet as good as this.

Further Reading

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David, Jack. “Visual Poetry in Canada: Birney, Bissett, and bp.” Studies in Canadian Literature, no. 2 (1977): 252-66.

An overview of concrete poetry in Canada that includes attention to Earle Birney's role as a pioneer in the use of visual techniques in poetry.

Jones, D. G. “The Courage to Be.” In Butterfly on Rock, D. G. Jones, pp. 111-38. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1970.

A consideration of the treatment of the Leviathan theme in the works of E. J. Pratt, A. J. M. Smith, Irving Layton, and Earle Birney.

Smith, A. J. M. “A Unified Personality: Birney's Poems.” Canadian Literature, no. 30 (autumn 1966): 4-13.

An overview of the poems contained in Birney's Selected Poems.

Additional coverage of Birney's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 5, 20; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 4, 6, 11; Contemporary Poets, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 88; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Poets,; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Poetry for Students, Vol. 8; and Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2.

John Robert Colombo (essay date spring 1965)

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SOURCE: Colombo, John Robert. “Poetic Ambassador.” Canadian Literature, no. 24 (spring 1965): 55-9.

[In the following essay, Colombo offers a positive assessment of Birney's sixth volume of poetry, Near False Creek Mouth.]

Let me start with a few sentences from the Revised Edition of Desmond Pacey's Creative Writing in Canada. Concerning the poetry of Earle Birney, Professor Pacey has this to say: “Next to Pratt, he is the most original poet of Canada. … Unlike most contemporary Canadian poets, Birney is not given to echoing Eliot, Auden or Dylan Thomas. He is not always successful as a poet, but he is always himself. … Birney's tendency to root his poems in the present … frequently betrays him, as it also has betrayed Pratt in recent years, into writing not only of but merely for the moment.” Agreed—but since writing this, Birney broke his ten years of silence and published two totally new books two years apart.

I am certain Birney's latest, Near False Creek Mouth, his sixth book of poems, is his most striking, and perhaps his most accomplished collection. The way I see him, Earle Birney is neither young nor old. He seems to have discovered the fountain of youth late in life, he drank from it but broke all the rules by retaining the wisdom of his previous years. The poetry is like the man—youthful without being young, mature without being mellow, formal and fluid at the same time, neither academic nor beat, not entirely mannered yet not completely natural, neither totally ironic nor totally mythic—somehow a human (and somewhat haphazard) arrangement of workable incompatibles. The standard categories collapse at his feet. Birney is his own poet.

“His own poet” finds himself a tourist. He is knocking out travel poems for Near False Creek Mouth on his typewriter in South America and the Caribbean. As a rule, I don't go for travel poems, but these are not the standard picture-postcard variety. The vile phrase usually conjures up scenic views of mountains and matadors, usually expresses evocations of timeless beauty from the mouths of harried tourists, usually communicates weak liberalistic sentiments about oppression, sickness and death. Birney's travel poems are decidedly different. If anything, touristy poems are to Birney's what coloured slides are to 16 mm. colour movies. Birney's poems are not still pictures but motion pictures, in sound and colour. It is true they verge on the picturesque and the anecdotal, but they are dramatic and often demanding of the reader. There is nothing in them of the well-heeled traveller's minimizing of danger, discomfort and dark friendships. Instead Birney is, as a tourist and writer, aggressively engaging, with an eye for action. He describes only significant scenery, and the presence of the poet only when there is a purpose behind it.

Offsetting the colour and clamour of the exotic backgrounds, Birney places himself in the foreground, for dramatic relief, somewhat seriously, as a Prufrock. Throughout the poems he catches himself in a phrase peeping over the heads of crowds, as surprised as the reader to be there. In “For George Lamming,” he turns towards a mirror and is stunned to see himself among the “black tulip faces”:

like a white snail
in the supple dark flowers.

An Alfred Hitchcock, playing cameo roles in his own films, Birney turns up as a gossiping tourist in “Machu Picchu”:

coffeeplanter from Surinam
womanizing Rhodesian pitboss
American missionary-doctor
baldheaded professor (Canada).

A number of poems are the author's reactions to the sights and sounds around him. When he spies a girl on the beach, he laments his lack of speed—to chase after her (“On the Beach”). “Professor of Middle English Confronts Monster” finds him laughing at a miniature dragon the way St. George would laugh at a large lizard.

Birney's success stems from the open mind he maintains while travelling and composing. It is open to the ordinary and the extraordinary indiscriminately, but the two are impossible to separate in his successful poems. This is obvious in two linked poems “Cartagena de Indias” and “On Cartagena de Indias, His Native City.” The first (sustained in free form for a hundred and sixty-odd lines) is a scenario of the senses, rich in detail, remarkable in rhythm, crammed with details from everyday life in the Columbian city of Cartagena. Humanity and history are compressed, then, as if by chance, the poet contrives to come across a concrete “shoe … ten feet long” and beside it a plaque:

En homenaje de la memoria de
                    LUIS LOPEZ
se erigió este monumento
a los zapatos viejos
el día 10 febrero de 1957.

Peasants inform Birney that their national poet Luis Lopez wrote lovingly, though grudgingly, of their city as a worn-out shoe. This leads Birney to end his poem:

—and him I envy
I who am seldom read by my townsmen
Descendants of pirates          grandees
galleyslaves and cannibals
I love the whole starved cheating
poetry-reading lot of you
for throwing me the shoes of deadman Luis
to walk me back into brotherhood.

The poem that follows is a very fine translation of the Lopez poem, which in Birney's free rendering concludes:

… Still, full of your own familiar rancid disarray
you manage to win, even from me, that love
a man finds he has for his shoes when they are old.

The reader realizes at this point that the poems have ceased to be separate, that the collection of poems is a continuum of experience, that when Birney travels going is better than getting there.

Not every day is palmy. Beneath the excitement of everyday life, there are sinister and sacred moments. The dramatic poem “Meeting of Strangers” finds the poet in Trinidad confronting an armed thief. The dark-skinned hoodlum is attracted by the poet's “frayed jacket,” but by executing “a nice … jump” into the street, the poet is able to elude the stranger. “Frayed” suggests Birney's often sleazy subject-matter, and “jump” the technical virtuosity that keeps the poet out of depths he does not want to explore.

Birney gives the impression he can do anything he wants. This is the success of style. His remarkable ability to arrange surface sensations results in a poetry occasionally overwritten, too high-key, but verse that is compulsively readable. His control of the vernacular, his choice of the exact adjective and powerful verb, keep the tone taut and muscular. Texture quickens every line: a dramatic tension (throughout the book and within individual poems) between the swirl of outward action and the “one greywhite Vancouver me” (in “Saltfish and Akee”), between the often-violent action and the amazed observer. Birney is the still point; “I will follow in a small trot only,” he says in “On the Beach”.

But beneath the greying (or going) hair, there is a profounder man than Prufrock, someone moved by the sacred moments, someone:

by quite nameless excitement.

This Birney, the “believer in myth,” is the man who is moved. The phrases are taken from a fine poem “Machu Picchu,” which merges two points in history into a single psychological event—the discovery of the Machu Picchu ruins by Hiram Bingham, and their present-day rediscovery by tourists. The “quite nameless excitement” is studied more secretly in “Letters to a Cuzco Priest.” A nameless padre has incited the poverty-stricken peasants to protest their lot, and some of them are murdered during their protest. Birney asks the padre to redirect his prayers:

Do not forgive your god
who cannot change          being perfect.


Pray to yourself above all for men like me
that we do not quench
the man
in each of us.

There should be more poems of this intensity in Near False Creek Mouth to replace such interminable (though entertaining) pages of conversation as “Most of a Dialogue in Cuzco.” Like Hiram Bingham, the man who discovered Machu Picchu, Birney is an explorer of technique. The technique that interests him at the moment isn't so much stream-of-consciousness as it is Pop Poems. Pop Art undercuts the conventions of the framed canvas by incorporating “real” elements into the painting—road signs, Campbell's Soup labels, etc. Not being a painter, Birney takes overhead gutter conversations and incorporates them holus-bolus into some of his poems. When they function as asides, there for colour or dramatic relief, they work, but when they function as the full poem, they fail. Other poems which are meant to be heard, not read, like radio plays, are “Toronto Board of Trade Goes Abroad” and “Billboards Build Freedom of Choice.”

Among the poets of Canada, Birney is unique in another way. A unique stylist, he also has a unique stance. He is close to poets like George Barker and Theodore Roethke, for he seems to have found a way of being poetic without being self-conscious about it. He has learned to write about the beautiful without blinking, without avoiding it, apologizing for it, finding subterfuges or suffering it. His eyes reveal in colours, contrasts and contours. Like D. H. Lawrence, he has sudden sympathies for flowers, animals and peasants, without the aching feeling he has to justify such enthusiasm. He can write an old-fashioned poem about flowers (“Caribbean Kingdoms”) and make it modern and masculine. He has written his own motto for style and sympathy in “Fine Arts”:

Beware of the poet
who's fine-
ly bound
For the art to be lauded
as finest          see Ovid.

He maintains the novelty of experience and expression by using, in his touring poems, a hand-held camera—a moving montage, a sort of poetic-verité.

By contrast, the few poems with Canadian settings in Near False Creek Mouth are ironic and less than generous. “Advice to a Hamilton (Ont.) Lady About to Travel Again” travesties the Canadian scene delightfully, but at Canada's expense, and to the benefit of a Caribbean city. (The last line, which dissipates the effect of the poem, was added since the poem first appeared in The Tamarack Review.) “Arrivals,” set in Nova Scotia, is effective, but it is a typical Maritime poem with an overload of guilt. “Can. Hist.” is an able companion to Birney's “Can. Lit.” in Ice Cod Bell or Stone and a candidate for a revised The Blasted Pine. Finally, when he writes about that haven of poets, the Canadian academy, Birney is smug and sarcastic, as in “Candidate's Prayer before Master's Oral” and “Testimony of a Canadian Educational Leader.” I wish these poems were better—at least as moving as the travel poems.

I also wish the Canadian government would appoint Earle Birney its first Poetic Ambassador at Large. Ottawa should direct him to travel to all foreign countries and order him to transcribe their fauna and flora, describe ways of life in faraway places. He might then write about Canada with the same abandon he takes to cities in South America. In any case, he would permit his countrymen to share his memorable impressions of Germany, Italy, Iceland, India, Greece. …

A. K. Weatherhead (review date spring/summer 1965)

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SOURCE: Weatherhead, A. K. “Back to Canada.” Northwest Review 7, no. 1 (spring/summer 1965): 86-9.

[In the following review, Weatherhead writes about Near False Creek Mouth.]

About twenty-five years ago, just before the last war, Louis MacNeice wrote:

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
You cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold. …
Our freedom as free lances
Advances toward its end …
And soon, my friend
We shall have no time for dances. …

MacNeice is not a widely read poet, but for the English at least, the poem now perfectly recreates the general mood of the time of Munich, at the end of the “chromium-plate” era and its dizzy mayfly blisses—lagondas, roadhouses, cocktails, and tennis in white flannels.

In “November Walk Near False Creek Mouth,” the long, opening poem of his new volume, Earle Birney has found, one generation later, that the sunlight has again grown cold, and he anticipates a cataclysm equivalent to the cosmic changes which have taken aeons to complete. His way of going about things is longer and profounder and, in a word, entirely different from MacNeice's, and it would hardly be worth quoting the earlier poem were it not that “November Walk” is similar in that it speaks and will later speak with some precision to the mood generated by this moment in history: they will say (please God, even we may say), This is how it was. Birney embodies some of the pleasures of the sunlight that MacNeice refers to, which rattle like small change in the face of the five-figure losses to come. There is the trivial conversation:

… she said          I am!
I'm one of the Lockeys!
Not the Lockeys of Outgarden surely
I said. Yes she said but I live
in Winnipeg now.

or there are the childish fragments that tourists have shored against their ruin—

… plastic totems          a kewpie
a Hong Kong puzzle for somebody's child
who waits to be worshipped
back on the prairie farm.

And then above all there is the pervasive sense of destruction and doom to come.

The poem proceeds by way of a “periplum”—the word Ezra Pound gave to a poetic journey which, not overtly looking for images for a theme, furnishes what may add up to one. In Birney's poem the forthcoming images bear, more or less freely, upon the theme of the lost geological past and the lost human future. Obviously the season, time, and place of the walk, a late November afternoon at the western edge of the western world, are not artlessly chosen; and the images they provide are naturally those of decline and death. But the more freely they work the more powerful is their effect: the remark that the kids swimming are the “last maybe of whatever summer's swimmers” is not so terrifying as the natural image of the last flash of sunset, for example, the “unimaginable brightness,” or that of the dead maple leaves, which

… glistening with salt
have turned the ragged lawns
to a battlefield bright with their bodies.

In addition, the shadows cast by the future are made more ominous and, paradoxically, are enlarged by the sense we gain that this ending of an era is only a moment in the aeons of geologic time. The imagery evokes past ages when the sea threw up monsters upon its littoral as it now throws up driftwood.

Rhyme is almost entirely dispensed with in the poem, but much use is made of alliteration and assonance. There is no punctuation; pauses between words are indicated by double spaces. Here and there between the irregular stanzas are passages in italics in which the poet comments on the poetic techniques, usually the beat, as they develop: “the beat is the slap slip nudging / as the ledges are made unmade”; or

Slowly          scarcely sensed          the beat
has been quickening now as the air
from the whitened peaks is falling
faraway sliding. …

Just prior to this last italicized passage, the rhythm has in fact been speeding up:

the stinking ledge disputed by barnacles
waiting for tiderise to kick in their food
contested by jittery sandfleas
and hovering gulls;

and, as the acceleration is “scarcely sensed,” it seems useful to have attention drawn to it. But the total effect, a familiar one in modern poetry, is not simply to show up the products of the technique but to add another dimension, so that we become the audience not only of the poem but of the poet at work in it.

“November Walk” is the longest non-dramatic poem Earle Birney has ever written. I don't think he has ever written better. There are the good words with the exactly right connotations and exactly right sounds, not now and then by happy accident, but again and again in long successions. Here, for example, he contrasts the modern shore with what it used to be:

… under the leafless maples
between the lost salt home
and the asphalt ledge where carhorns call
call in the clotting air by a shore
where shamans never again will sound
with moon-snail conch the ritual plea
to brother salmon or vanished seal
and none ever heard
the horn of Triton or merman.

Literary; romantic; musical; rich; superbly anachronistic? I suppose it could be damned by any one of these terms. But then, who knows: the current taste for naked sandwiches on paper plates, even if one or the other can be chewed to the rhythms of jazz, may not always be in vogue. Poetry may transpire once more, when the wheel has come full circle, to be the best words in the best order.

The poems in the rest of the book are not so new in genre to those familiar with this poet's earlier work. They are poems of faraway places in the Caribbean, Peru, Chile, and elsewhere, with descriptions of scenes, customs, and incidents, discovered by the poet on his own journey or in recent or ancient history. Sometimes the point of a poem is tied pretty closely to an objective scene and incident: in “Barranquilla Bridge” boys standing on the bridge fish up floating fruit, discarding what is too rotten to eat. Smaller boys on the downstream side of the bridge fish up what their elders discard, hoping for edibles the latter have missed, but surreptitiously feeding the rotten fruit back into the stream higher up. The thing is lightly and economically sketched, with some good vivid touches; it ends:

It's the only rough justice
the weak can perform on the strong
And in Barranquilla hunger
fortifies Gresham's Law.

But often the point of the poem is further removed than here from the objective scene or incident which occasions it. In the short “Guadelupe,” for instance, Birney draws the irony out of the clash of human paradox in senoritas who park their Alfa Romeros and crawl on their knees to confession; in “Caribbean Kingdoms,” a fine poem which entirely resists paraphrase or summary, the meditation of the poet upstages the description altogether:

                    When all the life of sound has milled
                    to silence I think these vines will find
                    a way to trumpet green and purple still
                    and jacarandas ring their bells down ruined streets—
Our kingdom comes and goes with mind.

Among the poems of foreign parts are two or three portrayals of tourists, which better than anything else in the volume display the gay, irreverent side of this poet. In themselves mere fun, the placement of these poems is purposeful: Birney attends with more evident care than most poets to the ordering of poems within a volume and derives contrasts and counterpoints from it. Thus, for one example, the monologue of the compulsive talker with the paranoia about communism immediately precedes a narrative poem of shepherds who, incited by the local priest, led a little demonstration and were shot. Nor, in fairness, does the poet forget that he is a tourist himself. He makes some capital out of the incongruity of a “baldheaded professor (Canada)” surveying Machu Picchu, which otherwise

Picked clean of writhing vine or man
… eyes the swords of the Andes.

It is refreshing after the solemn meditations to have the irreverence of the tourist poems. But which controls which, in this poet-novelist-Chaucerian scholar, the solempnitee, the zest or the zest, the other? One doesn't know—only that both must be registered to get the measure of the man.

The poems are ordered superficially on the arc of the wide circular tour the poet made, and in the end he comes back to Canada. He does not come back to False Creek Mouth; the last poem is of a railway accident near Wolfville. Birney picks up vivid details of scenes and conversation as passengers straggle out of the cars to see the wrecked chevy at the crossing. One hand of the victim emerges from the blanket with which he has been covered; it is “stretched in some arresting habit of eloquence / to the last irrational judgement.” It is not in the geographic locale but in the fact that the theme of guilt in this last poem refers back to the “November Walk” that the poet's end is his beginning.

David Helwig (review date winter 1966)

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SOURCE: Helwig, David. Review of The Creative Writer.Queen's Quarterly 73, no. 4 (winter 1966): 612-13.

[In the following review, Helwig discusses a collection of Birney's essays about poetry and creative writing that were originally conceived as programs for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.]

In the seven essays (originally seven broadcasts) in this book [The Creative Writer], one of Canada's best poets tries to express for a wide public, the importance of the creative writer, with an accent on both words. His answers to the theoretical questions that come up are usually those of common sense or tradition but are informed with the passion of a man who loves poetry and believes in it.

The most important theme of the book is the relationship between the poet with his daimon “that drives from within,” and his society, which is necessary, as his audience, hostile, as his censor, and stimulating, as a sick world in need of the poet's cure. The poet begins with a kind of madness but ends with communication:

The listener hears at once both the peculiar voice that is the bizarre identity and separateness of the poet, and the human cry that is his certificate of humanity.

(p. 13)

The poet begins as a magician, but ends as a craftsman, or a player devoting great energy to a wonderful imaginative game.

Birney explores the problems and satisfactions of the writer by reference to works of his own, and his serious attempt to explain how some of his work came into being is a fascinating part of the book. References to his own work afflicted with bad luck or misunderstanding give us the basis for Birney's picture of a contemporary society indifferent to the poet or hostile to him.

Some of the later chapters of the book seem to me less balanced and less interesting than the early ones. There is a surprising suggestion of the importance of poetic fashion:

Rhyme, stanzic form, and regular rhythm have virtually disappeared from the better literary journals, even in Canada ….

(p. 36)

To create at the highest level, a writer-artist must have the chance to know the best literature not only of the world's past, but of the present, and especially to be in touch with the new and the experimental in his own language in his own generation.

(p. 46)

Though [a high school student] be a born dramatist, he may sweat over a Shakespeare play without also studying a contemporary one or learning the slightest thing about how plays are written today.

(p. 49)

I don't know exactly where the literary Dew Line is this moment, but I'm sure it lies somewhere in the complicated world of today's little-little magazines and small-press chapbooks.

(p. 72)

The poet is not being exhorted to live in today's world, but to write in today's style. Birney's poetry has better lessons to teach than this.

Birney's defence of the teaching of creative writing in the university will not convince everyone. It leaves me unsatisfied. However, his ideal creative campus is a fine dream:

Personally I'm all for any expenditure that will attract the best creative minds to our campuses and provide them with the time, money and means to develop their creativeness while they are there, and to help them publish their writing, display their painting, broadcast their music.

(p. 57)

As a whole the book has a rugged texture which reflects a man who has not left his wars behind him. Birney includes an analysis of the writer's attitude to his work and the world that seems to me to explain some of the prickliness in this book and in other Canadian writers of Birney's generation:

It seems to me that the effective writer is one who is inwardly sure of the entire naturalness of his creative act. For instance, he must be aware that he is writing not merely because he is neurotic. Everybody's a bit queer and slightly mad, but I'm sure that my compulsion to construct more and more unprofitable verses isn't anywhere near as screwball as the compulsion of businessmen to make more and more money. But the writer who does not believe this is hamstrung from the start, haunted by a false diagnosis of his society, and driven either into a permanent state of apology and mock-modesty for his abnormality, or into snarling hatred for the nastiness of the normal.

(p. 64)

This seems to me a wise comment on the writer's attitude to his society especially in Canada, which has not been quick to reassure the artist that his behaviour is normal. One of the things that gives a sense of real change in the recent literary scene is the advent of writers like Leonard Cohen and Gwendolyn MacEwen who seem free to create over a wide range because no energy is lost in friction and self-consciousness. Birney seldom seems to possess the sureness that he thinks so necessary. His achievement is all the more remarkable.

Milton Wilson (review date autumn 1966)

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SOURCE: Wilson, Milton. “Poet without a Muse.” Canadian Literature, no. 30 (autumn 1966): 14-20.

[In the following review of Selected Poems 1940-1966, Wilson focuses attention on the punctuation and spelling revisions Birney made to previously published works before including them in this collection.]

You might suppose that Earle Birney was too busy creating new poems to worry about collecting old ones. But for a writer whose old poems never stop pestering him to be transformed into new ones, the first task is hard to separate from the second. These Selected Poems 1940-1966 aren't really a retrospective show; they challenge us to see Birney not so much plain as anew. I've read his work far too often in the past to make a fresh look very easy. What follows is at best a series of notes towards an unwritten revised portrait.


The more Birney you read, the less he looks like anybody else. His asymmetrical, bulky, unpredictable accumulation of poems gathers individuality as it grows. In context even the least distinguished members start to seem unlikely and even independent. For a poet so unmistakably of his own time and place, he is a surprisingly free agent. Certainly no influential contemporary has ever taught him how to iron out any local idiosyncrasies and unfashionable commonplaces that he preferred to keep. He has learned only what he wanted and at his own speed. Any inescapable influence of his generation that he found irrelevant (T. S. Eliot, for example), he has managed to escape completely. What gives his work distinctiveness, I suppose, is not so much its originality as its mixture of openness and stubbornness, of cleverness and provinciality, even the way it sometimes stumbles over its own reality, like that half-teachable bear the title of whose poem Birney sets at the entrance to this selection.


If the problem of Birney's education as a poet is worth a second glance, it ought to be a very careful and sceptical one, particularly now that we have these Selected Poems, which throw doubt on many of the old Birney legends. Take the matter of chronology. The legend of Birney the late starter may have to give way to Birney the late publisher, depending on how seriously you take the vital statistics of date and place with which he has labelled his offspring, some of them—like “North of Superior” (labelled “1926-1945”) and “Mammorial Stunzas for Aimee Simple McFarcin” (labelled “Toronto 1932-San Francisco 1934,” but first printed in a Prism of 1959)—apparently twice-born or at least held in suspension for a long time. Did Birney draft a full-scale version of “North of Superior” in 1926 or did the 1945 version just incorporate a jotted image or two from the distant past? Was “Mammorial Stunzas”, which seems so characteristic of Birney's linguistic high spirits in the fifties, entirely conceived in the early thirties or did the young Birney merely give Aimee her graffiti from Belshazzar's feast and a pun or two on her name and then wait twenty-five years for the right poem to go with them and justify publication? The dating, in this case, seems to insist on a finished product in 1934 (or as finished as a Birney poem ever allows itself to be—the format has been completely reshaped for 1966). At least I will now stop being puzzled as to why anyone would choose to write Aimee's definitive poem long after everyone else had forgotten her.

Then there's the legend of a poetic hiatus in the mid-fifties, of a Birney unproductive because he had maybe lost faith in poetry or humanity or even himself. But, from the new vantage point, any hiatus, if it existed, starts to look pretty small, the sort of thing that needed little more than a trip to Mexico for its cure. And anyway, if Birney can write and only publish twenty or twenty-five years later, who knows what piles of unpublished poems lie in his bottom drawer waiting for their public moment?


Simple questions of chronology may be tricky, but the difficulties are multiplied for anyone who ventures to talk about Birney's poetic development and its relation to his poetic contemporaries. Most of the obvious half-truths that used to occur to me, I now find myself wanting to qualify almost as soon as I have uttered them. The staple product of conventional up-to-date British and American poetry can (very broadly indeed) be described as having moved from a metaphoric and allusive phase in the thirties and forties to a more linguistic—idiomatic and syntactic—one in the fifties and sixties, from the rhetoric of the image to the rhetoric of the voice. It's tempting to see Birney's own development following a similar course, with Trial of a City (1952) as the Janus-faced turning point. Nobody could be surprised at the date of an elaborate editorial conceit like “Page of Gaspé” (1943-1950) or an even more elaborate tidal one like “The Ebb Begins from Dream” (1945-1947)—despite Birney's difficulty persuading editors to print the latter. Still, although they date, they aren't just dated. The slightly later “North Star West” (1951) seems more of a mere period piece, the sort of inventive and readable exercise in imagery that with luck you might be able to bring off in those days. Indeed, if I interpret a remark in Birney's Preface correctly, that may be part of the point of the poem. But, while some of Birney's poems could (and in fact did) fit quite snugly into the post-war world of Penguin New Writing, the philologist and verbal mimic didn't need to wait until Trial of a City to be released. Among the early poems for which obviously no retrospective indulgence at all is needed are “Anglo-Saxon Street”, “Mappemounde” and “War Winters”. Birney is amused by those critics who thought that to write the verse of these poems he had to be an imitator of Hopkins, instead of just a mere student and teacher of mediaeval literature. Although he is properly aware of the dangers in any academic-poetic alliance, his own academic niche could hardly have been a luckier choice.


Birney's vocal virtuosity hasn't seemed out of place in the more recent worlds of “articulate energy” and “projective verse”, or on the p.a. circuit. But he can't be confused with the new virtuosos of breath and syntax, and his academic context certainly predates structural linguistics. There's also something a bit old-fashioned about his taste for “phonetic” spelling; it doesn't help much for Birney to write “damnear” or “billyuns,” when nobody says “damn near” or “billions” anyway. I suppose that it all justifies itself, in that without it the “Billboards” and “Diaper” poems couldn't have been written at all, but they remind me a bit of the easy old days when all a writer had to do to present his readers with a recognizable substandard dialect was to spell their own standard dialect as they really pronounced it. Birney's phonetic technique works best with an exotic like the speaker in that delightful monologue “Sinaloa”. The people who strike my ear most successfully, however, receive no such phonetic help, like the two-tongued Colombian bookseller in “Cartagena de Indias”, which (if I had to make a choice) I would call his finest poem.


Birney's other notational idiosyncrasies interest me far more than his spelling. Except for a few poems (notably “David”, “The Damnation of Vancouver” and the translations) and a few special places within poems (mainly conversations), instead of using the conventional comma, semicolon, colon and period as rhetorical and syntactic signposts, he now relies mainly on spacing and lineation, and has revised his old poems accordingly.

He is not (so the Preface tells us) trying to facilitate immediate and accurate reading or comprehension by these changes; on the contrary, his aim is “the art of indefinitely delayed communication—Infinite Ambiguity.” I don't know how seriously to take these last phrases; I do know that the new ambiguity is real enough, and in a few cases results in a new awkwardness. The chief problem is at the end of a line, where the distinction between endstopped and run-on lines is no longer visible, even when still relevant. One space starts to look like any other space, whether it breaks or ends a line. In “Captain Cook” when

flashed him a South Sea shilling; like a javelin
it split the old shop's air.

is revised to

flashed him a South Sea shilling                    like a javelin
it split the old shop's air

the phrase at the end of the first line can now look backwards and forwards instead of just forwards. It wouldn't be hard to defend the ambiguity of that revised version. But in the same poem when

First voyage, mouths burning
from the weevils in the biscuits,
charted New Zealand.

is revised to

First voyage                    mouths burning
from the weevils in the biscuits
charted New Zealand

the new syntactic ambiguity of the second line is a doubtful blessing indeed. It may be amusing, but the joke is at the expense of the poem.

The advantages and disadvantages of the new notation are worth weighing not just from passage to passage but from poem to poem. One fine poem that I much prefer to see in its old format is “Wake Island”: the format in the Selected Poems seems more confusing than ambiguous. On the other hand, while not a word of “Late Afternoon in Manzanilla” has been altered, the poem looks twice as good and comes off twice as well in its new format. I had no idea until now what an excellent poem it is.

Of course, the reaction against the clutter of punctuation in favour of the austerity of space Birney shares with a good many of his newer contemporaries. But he isn't always that austere (dashes, apostrophes, question marks, etc. are used), or, for that matter, consistent. In the new space-filled pages, even a few concluding periods still survive (I'm glad that he kept the one at the end of the “Diaper” poem), although, so far as I've noticed, only one anomalous comma (near the end of “Tavern by the Hellespont”):

the individual tables                    couples                    uncoupled
by the radio's decision, turn to their true oneness—

and here, although I like to think that it's an unexpected attempt to limit Infinite Ambiguity, it may be just an editorial or proofreading oversight, like the mislineation that disfigures “The Damnation of Vancouver” on page 176.


Not that Birney minds anomalies anyway. Some of his best poems are sports. No one could possibly anticipate them, he has shown no desire to repeat them, but once written they are an inevitable choice for his Selected Poems, no matter how stringent the selection. “St Valentine Is Past” is an obvious example. One of the few Birney poems that reads like a pure gift from his muse (he is not the sort of poet whom one usually credits with a muse), it has remained virtually unchanged since appearing in 1952's Trial of a City and Other Verse. In these ballad quatrains, while Theseus is off on his boar-hunt, and death seems mercifully at a distance, love finds late fulfilment under a shadowless sky. The lovers, like the age-old elements of earth and water, renew their long-past youthful fertility, and, for a day at least, seem to have Time on their side.

While he is rooted rock she strikes
                    to foam a loud cascade
that drowns the jeering gullish wings
                    far crashings in the glade
No more while lizard minutes sleep
                    around a cactus land
they'll blow their longings out like spores
                    that never grass the sand
No longer Time's a cloud of cliffs
                    unechoed by her Nile …

But these elemental lovers or late-coupling birds or aging Venus and Adonis (or whatever you wish to call them) are no match for dusty Time. And, as their elegiac, unkept sounds fade away, the pastness of St. Valentine's Day is sealed by the return of hunter, boar and pack.

And yet and yet a failing rod
                    strikes only dust from rock
while all the tune and time they breathe
                    is never kept in talk
Now water sky and rock are gone
                    the huddled woodbirds back
and hot upon the throbbing boar
                    comes Theseus and his pack

Although Birney, in his primitive or mediaeval or modern vein (sometimes all at once), is often a poet of myths, as such different poems as “Mappemounde”, “Pachuchan Miners”, “Takkakaw Falls”, “Bushed”, “Ballad of Mr Chubb” and, of course, “November Walk near False Creek Mouth” (with its updated characters from the sagas) make evident, nevertheless the sort of Renaissance myth-making that “St. Valentine is Past” does superbly seems to me totally uncharacteristic of him. If I had to choose a historical niche for him other than his own, the Age of Spenser would be my last choice.

And yet, in other respects, this is a typical Birney love poem, typical at least of his published range. In a recent article on Irving Layton, George Woodcock has praised our older love poets at the expense of their younger rivals. But Birney's love poems have been elegiac and autumnal from the start, or, when not elegiac, at least about love at a distance (e.g., “This Page My Pigeon” and, in a sense, “The Road to Nijmegen”). The very lovely “Under the Hazel Bough” (stylistically another anomaly, but quite different from “St. Valentine is Past”) is destined to this end:

but no man sees
                    where the trout lie now
or what leans out
                    from the hazel bough

In some recent poems the autumnal erotic note takes on a January-and-May form. I'm thinking not just of “Haiku for a Young Waitress”, “Curacao” and “Twenty-third Flight”, but also of “On the Beach” (which I miss from these Selected Poems), where the no longer agile speaker cries:

I will follow in a small trot only
          not whirling
                    O girl from the seafoam
                              have pity

and even of “A Walk in Kyoto”, where sex somehow triumphs over “the ancient discretions of Zen”.


Perhaps all that I have just been doing is applying to his love poems the cliché that Birney is in some respects a very Chaucerian kind of poet. The cliché deserves its wider application too. To begin with, there is his basic impersonality. You can learn practically nothing about him as a private person from his published poems. Self-revelation or self-analysis is not his business. And yet, like Chaucer, and increasingly with age, he enjoys offering us a kind of persona in the foreground: the innocent scapegoat of “Meeting of Strangers”, the aging and garlanded ram of “Twenty-third Flight”, the absurdly grateful initiate of “Cartagena de Indias”. If one of these days somebody writes a Ph.D. thesis called Birney's Irony, one person on whom the irony will not be lost is Birney himself.

Hayden Carruth (review date winter 1967)

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SOURCE: Carruth, Hayden. “Up, Over, and Out: The Poetry of Distraction.” The Tamarack Review (winter 1967): 61-9.

[In the following review of Birney's Selected Poems, Carruth criticizes the poet's notational revisions to previously published poems, in which he replaced traditional marks of punctuation with unconventional spacing.]

Normally when a reviewer is confronted by a book he does not like, but whose author is nevertheless a distinguished elder of the tribe, he is inclined to say nothing about it—in one thousand nice, ripe nothing-words. After all, what is the point of belabouring work that is done: it offers so little likelihood of significant alteration and improvement. Let it rest; like everything, it will seek and in due course find its own level; probably sooner than later. Let its author take what comfort he can from the knowledge that he has worked hard and honestly, has done the best he could ‘in the circumstances’ (that marvelous ur-phrase); and from the gratifying daily disclosures that his effort has acquired for him a fair degree of public approbation, etc., etc., etc.

The case of Mr Earle Birney forces us, however, to take a harder view of our obligation. In a small-minded, testy little preface to his Selected Poems, he makes two points (somewhat improbably conjoined): first, that he despises virtually all reviewers; and second, that he is indifferent to virtually all reviews. This being so, what shall we do but plough ahead, in an answering spirit of disregard? As Mr Jackie Gleason has remarked so cogently: ‘Away we go!’

But first I must point out, in hasty if inadequate amends, that Mr Birney says his preface was written at all only at the urgent behest of his publisher. If this is true, then certainly no publisher ever gave his author worse advice. Let it be stated categorically: in the selected and collected editions of the works of established writers any hermeneutic or apologetic material of any kind whatever is a distraction. Further, in ninety per cent of such cases it is an unseemly distraction. Of course Mr Birney should have been pig-headed enough to resist his publisher; but we know that such cases often require a finesse of temper exceeding the syntagma of ‘ordinary reality’; we know we must not ask too much, especially from poets. I had read few of Mr Birney's poems prior to receiving his selected edition in the mail, for none of his books has been published in the U.S., but I had heard him read some of them on the cbc, and had heard him also expound his poetic convictions, and he had struck me then as an intelligent, urbane, amiable, forthright, and interesting person; I have no reason to believe otherwise now.

In the context of these first three paragraphs, then, I shall, with my readers' indulgence, set down my observations of Mr Birney's poems in a somewhat random manner, since any attempt to organize an all-out attack on the issues raised by his book, and by its relationship to the general cultural mess, would extend far beyond the limits of a book review.

1. Descriptive and catalogue material first. Mr Birney's Selected Poems contains, by his own count, one hundred pieces. I have no idea what proportion of his entire œuvre this represents; but presumably, since he has chosen them himself and since the book is offered to us with all the flourishes usually accompanying a ‘definitive edition’ and a ‘major literary event’ (Index of Titles, Index of First Lines, copious auxiliary press intelligence, etc.), it is at least adequate. Almost all the poems bear datelines: Elphinstone 1946; Peru 1962; Hong Kong 1958; etc. Some bear double-datelines, e.g., Nueve Ixtapan 1956-1962, or Colombia 1962-Greece 1963, indicating not only an enviable amount of moving around but also some protracted, serious, and doubtless self-critical labour. As I thumb through the pages of his book, the earliest date I see is 1921, the latest is 1965—a considerable span. Mr Birney says in his preface that all the poems but one have been published previously, and he leaves it up to the ‘numerologists’, as he calls them, to discover which is the added poem; a task that may not be easy since all but eight of the poems, as Mr Birney also informs us, have been altered from their original forms, in some cases substantially. Although my own attitude toward hard-working bibliographers is much more respectful than Mr Birney's, I have no access to his previous texts, and hence must follow his example in leaving this work of identification to others. One of the most offensive aspects of Mr Birney's preface, incidentally, is his extreme condescension to the entire academic corps, in the face of what we are told on the flap of his dust jacket and in the ancillary press releases, viz., that he has been supported for years and years by the universities. Granted, most teachers are jugheads; but considering the extraordinary reliance we place upon the minority who are not, I doubt that anyone may wisely commit himself to this kind of hurtful, generalizing scorn, least of all someone who has been working the same end of the street. Finally, Mr Birney's book is decorated with six pen-and-brush drawings by Mr Leonard Brooks. To my taste, whatever merit these drawings may have in se, they are so abominably reproduced in the pages of this book that they can only be assigned to the same distractive rôle as the preface.

2. Turning to the substance of the Selected Poems, we find that the main alteration Mr Birney has made in his work is perfectly evident to us without any reference to the earlier texts. He has removed all the punctuation. Or rather, he has substituted one method of punctuation for another; or, more precisely still, he has substituted a method of punctuation which he very deficiently understands for a method which he probably understood rather well. The result is equally plain in almost any of the poems. Here are the opening lines of ‘Dusk on the Bay’, dated 1941:

The lighting rooms perfect a checkerboard
across apartment boxes          Through the popcorn
reek          hotdogs and chips          the air lets fall
a rain of quiet coolness on the flesh          The calling
bathers trot the footpocked sand on legs
unsexed by distance          waving arms severed
with twilight          From the whitening ribs of the raft divers
flash cream arcs across the expiring
sunset          and are quenched          Beyond the bay the files

No one can justly object to any poet using any convention of punctuation he chooses, provided he understands it and uses it well. Here we are faced with something entirely different. Obviously Mr Birney has tried to modernize an old-fashioned poem by making a change in its appearance, i.e., by inserting spaces where formerly he had commas, semi-colons, and periods. But no amount of superficial tinkering could disguise this poem. Even if he had not attached a date to it, we could not fail to recognize the characteristic heavy and pointless rhetoric, the absurd hyperbole, of the Forties and Fifties; this is third-rate Eberhart, fifth-rate Tate. It is pretty awful. But what is more important, it shows that Mr Birney is insensitive to the actual value of space in the typographical re-presentation of a poem. For what do his spaces accomplish? Exactly what his commas, semi-colons, and periods accomplished, except that the spaces are harder to read and distractive (like his preface). Mr Birney says that he has learned his method of space-punctuation “willingly” from younger poets, but I wonder who they are. If there are young Canadian poets who use spaces the way Mr Birney does, they must be remarkably obscure. George Bowering, André Major, and Paul Chamberland, among others, have used spaces within lines, but sparingly and never, I think, in lieu of other punctuation; while in the U.S. various poets, notably Gary Snyder and Robert Duncan, have used space to indicate a pause within the line which cannot be indicated by conventional punctuation. But Mr Birney did not need to turn to his juniors. William Carlos Williams began experimenting with the uses of space in the late Thirties, I believe, and Ezra Pound even before that. The point is that space can be used to do something which cannot be done otherwise, and this is its appropriate use; Mr Birney seems unaware of it. Here are a few lines by Robert Duncan:

                                                            O mask of the mandrill!
knuckle-dancing night-prowler! from your
hut among the everlastings you come,
animal figure no older than we are
                    and mimic my own, ready-made, mind mandrill,
having a name          who gave you?
                                                                                                    Call back
into my heart that raging woman
outcast. Thou are the first of our plan then!
                    Cast out          the lashes of your eye          over us!
                    I'll be a tear, swim to the brim,
dew the Sun casts down          to the rose of dawn.

Like it or not—and I do—this has a rationale. What Mr Birney has done, on the other hand, has no reasonable explanation whatever. It is prosodic fiddle-faddle.

3. Even so, we could take it if the poems were good enough: the authority of a good poem drives everything before it, putting us, while we search out the goodness, to glad offence and joyful exasperation; as we have seen in our time often enough. Unfortunately Mr Birney's poems lack this authority. I judge from his datelines that he has travelled a good deal, and his poems have the traveller's superficiality. Most of them spring from a particular occasion; something arrests Mr Birney's eye—women in a marketplace, dandelions beside a brook, old ladies on a summer verandah—it can be almost anything. He describes it for us, usually in a forced, artful diction, and then at the end tacks on his own feeling about what he has described, usually sociological in nature. Of the hundred poems in his book, I would guess that eighty conform to this pattern. In short, they are sermons-from-stones poems. The pattern is an exceedingly common one, of course, that has plagued poets for hundreds of years, so that it is almost second nature for people who wish to contrive a poem to let their thoughts fall into three parts. In the first the poet shows us the stone as he has first seen it; in the middle part he walks around the stone and gives us the varying views; and at the end he gives us the sermon. Now no one would be foolish enough to deny that a few splendid poems have been written in this pattern, especially by the English Romantics. But how few! Think of the beginnings of great poems:

And yet this great wink of eternity,
Of rimless floods, unfettered leewardings
Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art!
April is the cruellest month
Afoot and lighthearted I take to the open road
They flee from me that one time did me seek
Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
                              like a buttercup
                                                            upon its branching stem—
save that it's green and wooden—
                              I come, my sweet,
                                                            to sing to you.
We lived long together

Descriptions in every case, but in the functionally revaluative language of coterminous mythopoeic commitment, to speak in a ghastly jargon. Isn't the feeling—the sermon, the meaning—instinct in these poems from the first syllable? And isn't this virtually the definition of a good poem? When Eliot invented the ‘objective correlative’, he placed as much emphasis on the second term as on the first; an object less than completely correlated with the poet's feeling would be no object at all, poetically speaking. But the correlation of object and feeling, of language and intention, in most of Mr Birney's poems is uncertain, to say the least. Many of his poems have the air of having been ‘worked up’ from meagre beginnings: worked up, worked over, and—too often—worked out.

4. Mr Birney's best poem—and I think this is significant—is the long poem called ‘David’, which is an uncharacteristic poem for him because it is a narrative, the only out-and-out narrative in his book. Here the correlation I speak of is unavoidable; the ‘story’ demands it. The language is mostly apt and restrained, the rhythmic pattern works well, the substance is simple and original. Mr Birney seems positively put out because this poem, which he does not think his best, has been so popular, and he cites ruefully (but he cites!) the ‘twenty-three anthologies’ in which it has appeared. One need not be in love with anthologists to realize that they are, nevertheless, more often right than wrong. At any rate, they are right in this instance. It is notable also that ‘David’ is the one poem in his book, not counting a radio play and several translations, which Mr Birney has failed to repunctuate with spaces: I say ‘notable’, but why was ‘David’ spared? One can think of … oh, well, let it pass. Two or three of Mr Birney's conventional lyrics, which no amount of space-punctuation can de-conventionalize, are charming and workable; such poems as ‘From the Hazel Bough’ and ‘Wind Chimes in a Temple Ruin’. Among his satires I find two especially that are taut and sharp and bright, ‘Billboards Build Freedom of Choice’ and ‘Canada: Case History’, but others, like ‘Ballad of Mr Chubb’, are simply banal. The long poem called ‘November Walk near False Creek Mouth’ is too long and a good deal too imitative to be ultimately interesting, though it contains some engaging passages.

5. In the press releases Mr Birney is called ‘the dean of Canadian poets’, and I am told by people who probably know that the epithet is just; that is, among literate Canadians who know anything about contemporary poetry, a large number regard Mr Birney as the leading Canadian poet. I do not know how Mr Birney feels about this; sometimes he seems to wish to be modern and radical, sometimes he seems to wish to be Top Dog in the Establishment. His position is ambiguous; or perhaps he really doesn't care one way or the other. What is significant is that he has become dean by common consent, so to speak. This shows something—I am not prepared to say exactly what—about Canadian civilization at large; or perhaps I should say about English-Canadian civilization. It is always invidious to compare the actual poetic accomplishments of leading poets, and I will not do so with Mr Birney, at least not any more than I have already; but it is not invidious to compare attitudes. Whatever one may say about Eliot, for example—and I have written many things both good and bad about him—he was without doubt the dean of English-speaking poets before he died, and he was also without doubt a serious poet. He failed in some important respects, but in all his work he met his own criterion of genuineness. There was no playing around by Eliot, no working up of meagre poems on set themes. He was, that is to say, the serious leader ‘elected’ by a serious society. In Mr Birney's case, my criticism under Paragraph 3 above comes down to this: a lack of poetic seriousness, a lack of poetic faith. Is it Mr Birney's fault? Judging from his work and what little more I know about him, I expect he is very profoundly a product of English-Canadian culture. What about the younger poets? Not long ago in this magazine (Autumn, 1965) George Bowering had a poem called ‘Windigo’ that seemed at first, to us in the United States, just what we are looking for from Canada: fresh, clean, and natural in its formal elements, distinctively Canadian in its thematic elements. But as we read on, we began to be disappointed, for we saw it falling into the same pattern: the sermon in the stone. The three parts; discrete and, as Eliot would have said, dissociated; betraying lack of feeling, lack of faith. Many sound historical objections have been raised to Eliot's concept of the ‘dissociation of sensibility’, chiefly because Eliot himself made it more pretentious than it should have been; it is simply a catch-concept, and as such very handy, for determining genuineness or lack of genuineness in the poetic faith of a society at large or of a poem like Bowering's. Not that there isn't plenty of such poetry, and worse, produced in the U.S.: tons and tons of it every week; I do not mean to be inimical or rancorous, merely questioning. There is a considerable step forward, I think, from Birney to Bowering—and to Newlove, perhaps to Purdy, Everson, and Davey. Is a breakthrough coming? Is the pattern eradicable? I don't know, and in order to find out I should need to read much more Canadian poetry than I shall have time to read if I am to meet my other obligations, though I have read far more already than most people on this side of the frontier. But it isn't necessary, is it? There must be Canadians sensitive enough to these delicate aspects of cultural sociology to tell us that the breakthrough is coming, and when, and where. What we are awaiting now is for them to stand up and say it loud enough for everyone to hear.

Earle Birney with Caroline Bayard and Jack David (interview date 1976)

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SOURCE: Birney, Earle with Caroline Bayard and Jack David. “An Interview with Earle Birney.” In Out-Posts, Caroline Bayard and Jack David, pp. 108-21. Don Mills, Ontario, Canada: Press Porcépic Ltd., 1978.

[In the following interview from 1976, Birney talks with Bayard and David about the development of his experimental and visual approach to the writing of poetry.]

Earle Birney was born in Calgary in 1904 and grew up on farms in the Rockies. For two years after high school, he worked at a variety of jobs before enrolling at the University of British Columbia in 1922. Encouraged by Garnett Sedgewick to pursue literary studies, Birney paid his academic dues with an M.A. (1927) and Ph.D. (1936), concluding with a long thesis on “Chaucer's Irony.” Although Birney had written poetry since he was a teenager, it was not until 1942 that his first collection was published, David and Other Poems. He has spent much of his life teaching English and Creative Writing, especially at U.B.C. and the University of Toronto, but since 1968 he has been a full-time writer. Sometimes referred to as the Dean of Canadian Poets and as Canada's Cultural Ambassador, Birney has travelled world-wide and has written engagingly about his experiences.

This interview took place in Birney's 22nd floor Toronto apartment on January 22nd, 1976. From his windows you can see Lake Ontario and, if your vision is strong enough, far to the east.

[David]: Your Collected Poems reflects the freeing up of the tightly ordered page.

[Birney]: In my Collected Poems I've arranged the poems that are in any way visuals—audio-visual, let's say, since many of them carry auditory signals as well as visual—in the order of composition. The earliest turns out to be one where the Gutenberg line starts jumping around to emphasize some sound effects made by Joycean portmanteau puns. This is “Mammorial Stunzas for Aimee Simple McFarcin,” 1945. It was sort of a freaky thing. I thought, I'd like to get some lines to go way up where I needed a hallelujah effect, and others to drop down in mock wailings. So I did this, but nobody would print it. I put it back in straight lines and got the poem accepted. So I gave up for a bit. In '51, that's when I got really started. I'd begun to get very conscious of signs when I was driving along through the mid-Western States, and then I came to this town in Minnesota and it was almost entirely signs. The little main street had shops so small that the signs almost concealed them. Some of these signs stayed in my head and I began to make up a story about the people, including the guy who ran the Hook and Slice Golf Clinic, and the motel proprietor with his Pa and Ma Comfort Stations. I guess somebody had been ingenious about signs and he'd infected the whole community, so everybody was competing to get out the craziest. There was a garage with a sign: Chubb sells Chubbsidized motors. So I made up a ballad of Mr. Chubb, making him a bit of a voyeur who goes to the Hook and Slice Clinic to watch the girls in the afternoon being treated for hook and slice. But he's got a young wife, and she runs off with Slim who teaches at the clinic. Chubb is worried more than anything about buying a lot out in the sand hill where he can make an atomic shelter and get away from the Bomb. So I wrote “The Ballad of Mr. Chubb,” which later appeared in the Canadian Forum.

[Bayard]: Do you think “The Ballad of Mr. Chubb” marks your entrance into experimental poetry? Or would you date that back to “Mammorial Stunzas”?

[Birney]: Well, it depends on what you mean by experimental poetry. The very earliest poem I've got in my Collected Poems is a poem, “Kootenay Still Life,” in which I was experimenting with a certain kind of half-rhyming and other sound effects. I didn't know what I was up to. I started “Kootenay Still Life” in 1920 when I was only sixteen. I began it in straight rhyme, from high school models, and thinking, “Gee, rhyme is hard, it's forcing me to say something else than I want to. So what about something that sounds almost like a rhyme, but gives me more freedom of word-choice? Maybe I could make all my poems with half-rhymes.” Then I thought, “Oh hell, it's just doodling,” and put it away. It wasn't until 1941 that I pulled this poem out when I was burning a bunch of old stuff at Thunder Bay on the beach. I thought, well, I can make something of that. By this time I'd gone up to college and got a Ph.D. and read the Song of Roland in the original, so now I knew how to create a sort of assonance that would change into consonance or alternate with it and then resolve itself into straight rhyme.

So, for me experimentation was going on from the time I started writing, in respect to the sound, the tones and rhythms of my poetry, the problem of recording on the page the peculiar sound of my own voice. I never wanted to write like anybody else, and yet I was always being influenced. I had read some Archibald MacLeish, for example, whom I thought very little of—I'd heard him and seen him and thought he was just a smart-ass American—but then I read his “Conquistador” and, although I could see it was mainly a steal from Bernal Diaz's Conquest of New Spain, nevertheless he had made something personal out of it. His line was a beautiful line—resonant—it too was a bit like the Song of Roland. So when I came to write “David,” its musical form owed something to both poems. I was trying to write that kind of line, that swoop and carry-on of a narrative poem in which the action is being recalled, remembered in later life.

At the same time, around 1940, I wrote “Anglo-Saxon Street” and “War Winter,” which were not Hopkinesque poems, as the first critics thought, but scholarly adaptations of Anglo-Saxon metrical “head-rhyming” and litotes to produce a “modern” verse. Experimentation in sound has always been for me part of the writing of a poem. Every poem idea I get poses for me a different problem in form. In the twentieth century verse has been freed from most conventions, so you can feel that the world's your oyster—but how are you going to open its shell? It's going to be different every time; it's a different oyster every time.

[David]: Early on, your ear for musical phrases—and especially assonance and consonance resolving into a full rhyme—not only in “Kootenay Still Life” but also in other poems was accurate. Your first published poem, “Dormit Flumen,” published in The Ubyssey

[Birney]: Oh, you saw that. Oh, God.

[David]: … is full of consonance and assonance—it's loaded—and there's also a lot of mid-line rhyming with previous stanzaic rhymes. A very complex rhyming pattern.

[Birney]: I was amazed, when I looked back, at how much work I put in on that thing—with so little success. A phony piece of pathetic fallacy.

[David]: But very clearly there was a conscious effort to draw those words together.

[Bayard]: As you got more into the visual experimentation from “Mr. Chubb” on, did you feel very isolated?

[Birney]: Yes, I did. That was partly because of my own ignorance. I had not kept in touch with recent European experimentation. I had for a while, but it was more with prose. I had become a Joycean, very early on, and, as I said, “Mammorial Stunzas” is in some ways an attempt to use Joycean portmanteau words for comic purposes. I tried several of those. I then started to get into the boys who had been the first French experimenters with type, like Apollinaire. He altered the linear shape of his poems to suggest the theme, as in his rain calligramme. A very dynamic development from the shapomes of the Jacobean religious lyricists. But the first concretists didn't make their work accessible till the late 1950s. By then the Swiss pioneer, Gomringer, had got in touch with the Brazilian Noigandres group and together helped launch the international “concrete” movement of today.

[Bayard]: Were you relating to any poets over there who were into concretism?

[Birney]: Not in '53. It hadn't made its work accessible till 1958. In Paris in '53 I was a sub-editor of Alex Trocchi's Merlin, so I got to know Samuel Beckett, and other English language writers in Europe, Henry Miller, etc. I was writing another novel then and trying not to get too involved with anybody. I did write a “visual” in '53 in France called “On the Beach.” It has a long tail—but the influence was Lewis Carroll. From 1954-58, back at U.B.C., I got time to write only in the summers. I couldn't find time even to read anything but student papers and textbooks.

[David]: Were you aware, at that time, of anybody else in Canada who was doing any visual things, in the early 50s, middle 50s?

[Birney]: I wasn't aware of anybody at all, no. I wasn't aware of any Americans because there weren't any of them either, except e. e. cummings. He was a great influence, one of those responsible for the break-up of the line on the page. Cummings by now was in our textbooks, but that didn't mean anybody in Canada was going to publish you if you did his sort of thing.

[Bayard]: Why did you seem to abandon that particular direction after “Mr. Chubb”?

[Birney]: I didn't—I went on doing those things when I felt like it. But I couldn't get them accepted by editors. After Chubb I wrote “Underkill,” which came from the same interest in signs, this one from another little town. And I wrote “Hot Springs,” another billboard type of poem in Mexico in '56—not published till '62. These pieces just sat around as I didn't know where I could get them published. I re-worked an old sonnet, “Alaska Passage,” into a visual-chant poem, but it didn't appear till 1960. I was still an unknown in the States or in England even when I wrote things straight. I went to Mexico for the summers of '55 and '56. Out of that came “Six-Sided Square, Actopan.” I was in this old village, Actopan, and its plaza was six-sided, and very big—everything was going on. So I thought, I don't need to describe the architecture of this, I'll shape the poem as a six-sided square. This was one of those simple solutions that help create a form for a poem.

It got me going on architectural poetry for a while, like “Buildings,” published in 1957. “Appeal to a Lady with a Diaper,” written in '56, has for its scene an intercontinental bus. So the lines are moving up and down, sometimes bumping up and down, to get the sensation of a bus going. Meanwhile there's this guy talking—he sat down beside me—a super-American. He's been in Canada, he's a super-Canadian too. Wall St., Bay St., Free Entahprize—all this crappy talk. And I'm stuck with him. His wife is in back of the bus nearly the whole time, tending her baby who seems to have diarrhea, and constantly needs diapers. He pays no attention to this—he's lonely—I had a seat alone on the other side, and he just shifted over and started yapping with me. A lot of the poem is very auditory. It's his voice, all the clichés of the middle-aged square American that the younger generation hated, particularly in this period. But there was this freaky visual form again, which got in the road of the poem being published. After a year it sneaked into the Raven, a little student magazine out at U.B.C., long dead. They wanted something free from me, and I said you can have this if you damn well set it exactly as it is there. So they did. They'd never had a printer's problem like this before. Students would take time to do it, of course, whereas established editors wouldn't.

[Bayard]: All these are published almost the same year they are written?

[Birney]: Very seldom; for example, “Letter to a Conceivable Great Grandson” was just published “straight” in a magazine because in '46 I hadn't been trying to break up the lines. But when I came back to look at the poem before it was to go into a book, I got dissatisfied and held it over and changed it. It took me till '59 to get that new version published.

[Bayard]: How do you define the need to break it up?

[Birney]: There was a passage in this poem—“soon we'll be / sending whole manuscripts prepaid to the / planets”—where I wanted to get a sense of speed. So I thought, why not just rush the words together?

[Bayard]: It was a rhythmic need at first, more than a visual need.

[Birney]: Yes. A lot of my so-called visual stuff is simply notation for sound. I have more lately got into purely visual things, like my alphabeings in Four Parts Sand. It satisfies me much more to be able to do both.

I think it was in 1961 I drew the first thing which was quite removed from the audio—the “Ear Muff Tree Ripening.” It was just a drawing really, just a doodle; only the title ties it in with literature.

[Bayard]: When did you start your doodling?

[Birney]: In the 50s. I was into more and more administrative work at U.B.C. Interminable committee meetings. At first I did straight doggerel, like “Our Forefathers Literary.” But there was one committee that stimulated me visually. That was the Fine Arts Committee. We were struggling to get a Fine Arts Department set up at U.B.C. and one of the committee was B. C. Binning, the Canadian painter. Bert Binning is an old friend of mine, so the two of us always tried to sit together. I used to get fascinated with his doodles. You could take them right out and sell them because he doodled much the same way as his early paintings. The masts and prows of boats. At that time we were often getting mail for each other, because I was E. Birney and he was B. C. Binning. This gave me an idea. I began signing all my doodles B. C. Birney, and leaving them on the table afterwards, alphabeings like “Figure Skater.” Binning complained that people would really confuse us, and down would go his reputation. So he began writing corny-porny limericks like my “Fine Arts” and signing them Earle Binning, and we called it a draw.

[Bayard]: Did you do much doodling as a young man?

[Birney]: Not real ones, only verbally—epigrams, limericks, etc. I was convinced that I had no visual ability whatever, by my teachers at school. I have no sketching talent, no command over figures in drawing. But in later life, as I began trying to express more precise, and more complex visual patterns in my poetry, I felt I couldn't do it all with words, the word isn't enough, I had to get the page to light up. I began to think about the whole history of art in relation to literature and eventually, in the late 60s, I started crusading for intermedia art, and prepared a whole block of illustrative slides. I got a lot of discards from the Art Department of U. of T., picking up good medieval things because I knew what to look for, having been a medieval scholar. I knew that the union of art and poetry, of the visual line and word, had taken place long long ago. Oriental and medieval western libraries are crowded with beautiful illuminated poetry manuscripts. There's even one in which the border is made up of scrambles of letters. The letters don't spell anything. It's really playing abstractly with the medium of words, getting into concrete. Reapers in the fields are sickling grain, and the grain is coming off as letters, ‘L's and ‘K's, etc. This is “abstract” or concrete poetry in the making.

[Bayard]: You wrote a poem in 1962 called “Creeley” which seems to be an imitation of Creeley's spare small line style. Was it a parody or a homage?

[Birney]: It wasn't a parody. It was a straight poem. I knew his work but hadn't met him or heard him read till '62; then I was at a party for him, and watched him. It was a sort of a realistic thing as far as I was concerned. So I thought why not put it in Creeley's style. But that, of course, has nothing to do with “concrete.” The Black Mountaineers never understood the movement that replaced them.

[Bayard]: At that time at U.B.C., the Tish movement was beginning and there were a lot of young poets there who were very influenced by the Americans. Did you have much to do with that group? What did you think of this kind of Americanization of these Canadians?

[Birney]: As it happened, I didn't have much to do with the group as such, but I had no lack of sympathy for them. I was a subscriber to Tish from its beginnings, and was glad to see their enthusiasm for Pound, Williams, Olson, and Creeley, who were not taught by the English profs who gave courses in so-called modern poetry. Their courses generally ended with Eliot. I had seen to it that the Black Mountain poets and their predecessors were added to U.B.C.'s Library before even Tish started. But I didn't teach these poets because I was hired to teach Old English and Chaucer, and was fully occupied with such students and with my Creative Writing courses. I had over forty people in my advanced Chaucer class alone. Frank Davey was one of them but I didn't happen to get to know him then as well as I did others in the Tish group who came into my Creative Writing workshops—George Bowering, Lionel Kearns, Tom Wayman, Milton Acorn, etc.

Later I became aware gradually that there was a small group connected with Tish who were hostile to my Creative Writing courses because my policy was to encourage students to find their own style by reading and writing, not by “group worship” of any one American style. I considered Bob Dylan and the Beatles to be just as significant poetically as Creeley. Then I became aware through latrine-ograms and gossip that some of the new young American instructors I had helped to hire were steering their students away from Canadian writers—away from me, particularly, because I was urging students to read Layton, Klein, etc., and British and European and Oriental poets as well as Americans. They used to call me Mr. Canada, whereas I felt myself to be an internationalist, in literature as in politics. Davey himself didn't sell out—he felt himself a Canadian—but he was naive and he went holus-bolus for projective verse, and so did a lot of others. Sure, it was a genuine new American poetry movement but they were making it into a jingoist religion, with saints and martyrs and persecution of heretics.

Long before, in the late 40s, shortly after I came to teach at U.B.C., I had founded a club called Authors Anonymous, to allow students in my Creative Writing Course who were doing a lot of writing further opportunities to discuss it. Two hours a week on campus wasn't enough. They were older than the average undergraduate—returned soldiers. Eric Nicol, Bob Harlow, Jim Jackson. They have all since published, purged themselves of their war memories and gone on to other things. The club produced a mixture of prose and poetry, but most of them were interested in writing prose. We attracted some very interesting people to that group, such as Ethel Wilson, Roderick Haig-Brown, Daryl Duke, and my energies and time for writers—out of hours—went into this. So that I wasn't one of the people who hung around the Tish office. It's my opinion still that Authors Anonymous did far more in its quiet way for the creation of the B.C. writing scene than Tish did. George Bowering had a column in the college paper and wrote for Tish and also for my advanced poetry workshop, and I used to keep in touch with the Tish development through him and Lionel Kearns and Maxine Gadd and other students of mine. I was able to develop a complete writing program at U.B.C. I got Jake Zilber, one of the editors of Prism, in to handle fiction writing, and Tony Friedson for playwriting. In '63 we became a separate department, offering a dozen courses—the first independent Creative Writing Department in any university in the world!

[Bayard]: When did you become aware of the “one man civilization” of bill bissett?

[Birney]: About the same time he started his magazine. I was away in Europe and South America '62-'63, and came back to Vancouver to discover bissett. Blewointment's name was seared on my memory by the fact that I knew what it was all about—I mean, the name—but not many people did. Do you?

[Bayard]: No, I don't.

[Birney]: It belongs to a different generation's sex knowledge because Blewoinment isn't so much needed today. It's a specific for crabs, for pubic hair lice. Apparently they must have some better ointment today, or else the crab-lice have all been killed off in Canada. When bill's magazine came out with a second issue, I decided the university library ought to subscribe. So I put in an order. It was taken down on the phone by some teen-age girl assistant in the library. Then she went home to supper and told her Dad—who was no sexual innocent, a businessman—that she had put in an order for a new Vancouver magazine called Blewointment. Called what? And he blew up. When he found out she didn't know what it meant it made him even angrier—his daughter was being imposed on. So the next morning he gets on the phone to the President of the university. The Prexy calms him down and then phones the library to find out who did order this book. President Larry MacKenzie was a political scientist who wasn't going to get his fingers burned arguing with me about what magazines should be ordered as literature. But next time he saw me on campus he said casually, “By the way, I hear you ordered some Blewointment for our university.”

[Bayard]: Did you think then, in 1963, that Blewointment was going to last over twelve years?

[Birney]: No, and I didn't think Tish would live as long as it did. It was so badly reproduced, but it caught on because of its freshness and over-all quality and became well-known in the United States. Blewointment—well, one never knew how long bill was going to be able to do it, whether he was going to be in jail, or dead broke. But he was and is a dedicated poet and editor, and a great human being.

[David]: bpNichol called you the “forerunner of concrete in Canada” in the back of The Cosmic Chef. You wrote him back: “I was just doing some space doodling up to then” and that bissett and Nichol are the real forerunners.

[Birney]: When you look at what I've done, well, I was just stumbling onto things. I wasn't consciously out to do anything very much until they gave me some heart.

[Bayard]: Before 1967, did you see yourself as a father-figure to Nichol and bissett and Aylward?

[Birney]: No, I didn't see myself as a father-figure to anyone, and didn't want to be, except to my own son. When I got loose from U.B.C. at last in 1965, there was a great change in my life, because I had broken with academic teaching. From then on I would associate myself with universities only on my terms. I didn't even want that much connection but I had to make a living, and I wanted to keep seeing young people. The first two years, when I was writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto, I made it a point to meet as many young writers as I could. Anybody I thought had any talent, inside or out of the university, I invited to come back again. I was trying to feel out what a writer-in-residence job should be, because I was the first one in Canada, and Claude Bissell, the President, asked me: What do you think you should do? We had agreed this should be a rotating job, so I gave him full reports, for the benefit of later writers-in-residence. I thought one of the things was that I should be willing to read my poetry—and other poets if I wanted to—anywhere on the campus, without charge. And to read as much as I could, on invitation, in other parts of Canada—but for a fee. I got to know most of the writers all over the country and was a leader in the founding of the League of Canadian Poets.

Then the Canada Council asked me to be on the Arts Advisory Committee to the Council. That involved me in assessing all the recommendations and applications for English-language writers. I learned a lot more there, especially about the arts in general in Canada. We would all join in the discussion about opera, ballet, etc., because we were all so worried that the performing arts had to get so much Council money to keep alive. By and large it was a great education to see literature in the country in relation both to bilingualism and to all the other arts, and to meet the other arts advisors every three months, the heads of opera, symphony, ballet in both French and English Canada.

[Bayard]: During the 60s, in a number of countries, concretists put out a number of manifestoes, statements, position-papers, counter-statements. This did not occur in English Canada. Was there or wasn't there a concrete movement in Canada?

[Birney]: In so far as bpNichol was one, there was one. He was trying to cover the country with grOnk and other Ganglia Press writing to educate and at the same time do his own thing. And bill bissett was teaching the West to use Blewointment. Phyllis Webb had a job at CBC television for a while and she got the CBC to get me and Nichol and others down for sort of a production of concrete. As far as Nichol goes, it was a success. He really let out with his chants and whoops. I had some slides—not enough—and so I made more and would try to give a slide presentation whenever I had a chance to read in colleges. The trouble was that the average university student came to hear “David,” or some other of my stock poems. I thought I'll give them a little of each, but set up a slide situation. But it took me an hour just to explain my slides because there's so much to explain in a first lecture on concrete poetry to an audience that knows nothing about it. In quite a few places I did this. When I came out to Toronto in 1965 I made contact with bp. I didn't have that kind of contact with bill bissett—he was someone who I was friendly with, and would drop in on, but we scarcely ever talked about our work. We seemed always involved in helping someone who had been busted.

[David]: At one point you considered calling Pnomes, Jukollages, and Other Stunzas “Screw Yew McStew.” Is that because you thought that “The Canadian Publisher” had no respect for your particular visuals?

[Birney]: I guess so, yeah. Jack or his editor had refused to put them in my books at first. Of course the firm finally got around to it, when they got editors in M&S like John Newlove.

[David]: When you look at the small presses, there seems to be a difference between the Toronto small presses and the Vancouver small presses. Blewointment puts out rough unfinished copy but Coach House and Weed Flower take more care with production. Do you think that represents an esthetic difference between the Toronto poets and the Vancouver poets?

[Birney]: As between Nelson Ball and bill bissett, yes, but as a generalization, no. I think that's just the way technology develops and changes—the better machines were here, this was the bigger city. One of the first places I made contact with was Coach House Press, when it only had one or two books out, and was very low in funds. I did help to get their first Canada Council grant. The boy from Edmonton—Stan Bevington—was still pretty unsophisticated when I met him, a prairie-town printer. But he had this tremendous drive, he knew what he wanted to do. And he was just going out to do it. All he needed was money to buy time to know more, and have more tools. So he went round looking at places—machinery and things—I guess Victor Coleman helped him a lot, and others. And they would get catalogues of the latest printing devices in New York. This sort of scene was not going on in Vancouver—partly the difference between a big provincial town and a city. Toronto is the English-language publishing centre of Canada. If there was anything going on experimentally in 1965, from the technological standpoint, Marshall McLuhan would know about it, or bpNichol or someone; and the catalogue you got from New York would have an example of “baked ink” embossing, etc. People in Vancouver didn't think of sending to New York for a printer's catalogue, at that time, nor of submitting “concretes” like my “Poet-Tree 1” for tree-sized modelling at an international conference in Buenos Aires. But that doesn't mean an inborn difference of esthetic quality between the two places because actually the people doing these things in Toronto came from all over. Nichol was from Vancouver, Stan Bevington from Edmonton, bissett from Halifax.

[Bayard]: In the 60s you supported people like bissett and Nichol through the Canada Council. However in your poem “Canada Council”—the form of which I think is very intriguing—there is the subtle implication that there is something insular and desicated about the Canada Council as an institution.

[Birney]: I suppose there is, more than intended. It was a doodle done, like “chat bilingual,” in an Advisory Arts committee in Ottawa, and I'm not too satisfied with it because chance got too much in the road. There weren't enough relevant short words that meant something in both French and English.

[Bayard]: I think it's a very sophisticated poem, for a bilingual poem.

[Birney]: bp helped with that. Not with the idea or the wording, but the eye. I wanted to get the sense of an eye, but I didn't know how to do it. He said, “You don't have to draw one, just pick one up at Coach House, and bend the letters into its curve.” I was very naive about new printing methods, though not about Gutenberg's or linotype. I once had learned how to use a linotype in a printer's office, when I was editor of a weekly. I knew I wanted to get out of the world of that linotype, but hadn't known how. But from '65 on, I did whatever I wanted—newspaper collages, “Good year for movie nuns,” 3-dimensional sculpture-models (“Like an eddy …”), satiric maps (UP HER CAN NADA”), surrealist calendars, posters, etc., and bp used both handset and offset to bring out the effects.

[Bayard]: I was wondering if the creative process in a poem like “There Are Delicacies” is even remotely similar to the one when you write a poem like “Bushed”?

[Birney]: Yes. For me they both presented problems in dealing with an image. The image sets the scene, then you explore it. In “Bushed” the scene is a mountain and lake and I explore all that in terms of accelerating madness; the other is a love poem that takes its image from the back of a watch. I really had in mind an old “hunting watch” my mother used to wear; it had a little spring that would open the back, and then you would see all those tiny little wheels—the real delicacy of a watch. True, I wrote it as a straight poem, but as I was correcting the proof of it I began to think, why don't I visualize this inside of a watch? I had done it, first of all, flat on the page. I put in a reversed carbon without noticing it. When I saw the result, I said, My God, this is what I want! I want to have this reverse carbon alone, but on thin paper so I can hold up the blank side and look through, and see the original typing; but when I turn it back, it looks only like a watch because I can't decipher the letters when they're upside down and inside out. It was too late to use any but the straight version in Rag & Bone, but the circular see-thru form appears in my next book.

[Bayard]: But that's a different process from the one in the more traditional form.

[Birney]: Well, I was here now developing a visual poem, but still intent on looking into a person, seeing into more and more of the delicacy of her nature. So it wasn't out of spirit with the original conception, but it'd become much more of a technical problem, to which I had to be led by an accident of putting my carbon in backwards. And it's still not done right in what's so big about green. What I wanted was a sheet that was blank on the top side except for the title. All you saw was “there are delicacies” at the top of a blank page. Then you turn the page over, and there was the poem in reverse carbon. So you flip back to the title page, hold it up to the light, and read the poem through the page.

[Bayard]: Does it often happen that you write a poem in a linear way, and then you go back to it, and you transform it visually and turn it into a far more experimental, concrete-type poem?

[Birney]: At one stage it did, but I'm not doing it so much now. I've got involved in longer poems now.

[David]: You talked about chance in “Canada Council” and chance in the back of “There Are Delicacies.” You've done a computer poem. Do you see chance playing a larger part in your creative process now?

[Birney]: Oh, I suppose, though it always has been large. After all, one goes through life with poems being suggested every day. Many in a day. You have to suppress things because there isn't time—you have other things to do. It's a real chance in what moment you feel you have the time and the energy to drive through to something. Maybe most of the best poems are lost forever. Sometimes they turn out wonderful, sometimes they're lousy.

[Bayard]: What about using computers in the creative process?

[Birney]: I did once at the University of Waterloo after talking to a professor who was interested, from a mathematical point of view, to see if we could work out a poem.

[Bayard]: Do you see any future in that?

[Birney]: Not very much. It takes a lot of programming of a computer for rhythm, rhyme, grammatical sequences, etc.

[Bayard]: What about the results?

[Birney]: It takes a long time going through the results. You get a tremendous strip of verbiage. Of course, it doesn't take the computer long once you've decided how to feed into it. A few seconds! And then you've got maybe 200 yards of paper with alleged lines of poetry on it, mostly gibberish. You'll find some lines, but you can go a long way and not find enough sensible ones that connect with each other. So there's a series of forced connections making up even a small poem. We didn't feed enough words in—just two sonnets, one by Archibald MacLeish, one by George Meredith.

[David]: What about your “alphabeing” poems, such as “alphabirney” and “chat bilingual”?

[Birney]: Those I feel are different from the others in that now I'm playing with letters. It's very tricky to do anything memorable or effective. I find it a real challenge. I think that the “chat bilingual” is as good as any of mine, because even without the title it says something; there's an irony, and a pun on the French, and all of this is presented simply by the arrangements of four letters: C H A T.

[David]: So you're much concerned with the linguistic inventiveness of that poem, of that kind of poem?

[Birney]: Yes, I think my alphabeings don't have a literary justification unless they have a multiple reverberation. And I don't think that more than two or three of mine have done that so far.

[Bayard]: One that really mystified me was “loon about to laugh.”

[Birney]: That was a problem partly of drawing and I may not have drawn the mouth of the loon well enough. The loon ought to look as if he is about to laugh, and that's what loons are always doing—they're flying across a lake laughing. It's all made up of “l”s, “o”s, and “n”s.

[Bayard]: Those are interesting poems if you put them back in the whole international context of concretism. Do you think you were trying to get away from any semantic charge of the word?

[Birney]: I suppose I was, just as in an early “straight” poem, “Slug in Woods.” I felt the loon such a strange and beautiful as well as comic creature, and wanted to focus by abstracting those qualities, by drawing him with his own letters, his own strange name.

[Bayard]: What do you think of a lot of contemporary poetry that is trying to do away completely with semantics?

[Birney]: It generally bores me. Just drawing by typewriter, which is what bp was doing sometimes, and bissett, is boring. The results bore me visually. It's when bill gets up and starts chanting from them, that I realize they're only just scratchy notations for his chants. I'm getting more interested again in notation for reading. Nevertheless, for me, the order of “To Swindon From London by Britrail Aloud” doesn't matter a damn because I don't really read that text when I get up and deliver the poem. My eye catches only certain parts of it because I have to go so fast. If I read it exactly, it would go so slowly you'd think it was only a freight train. For the purposes of having a printed record, I wrote it all out once. But according to my mood, I'll continue doing it in various versions.

[Bayard]: From the viewpoint of notation, sometimes it's frustrating for the reader because you're not sure what the rhythm of the poem is. It's up to each individual reading.

[Birney]: Well, anybody who has travelled in a train, especially an old-fashioned British one, should be able to get the rhythms. For a long time I didn't write this poem down. I just used to deliver it spontaneously, but students would come up and ask me where they could get a copy. So I thought, they want it written down, I'll write it down. They even want to know how to say it, so I'll pretend to help. I'd always wanted to use these lovely Italian words for playing the piano, like “delicatissimo,” “appassionato,” and “con una certa espressione parlante” (which only means singing it in a conversational voice).

[Bayard]: Do you think you're going to move towards a more precise type of notation?

[Birney]: No, I don't think so. I'd have to use the IP Alphabet and most poetry readers don't know it.

[Bayard]: What strikes me is that there seems to be a demarcation line between your experiments and the Québécois contemporary poets' very precise and rigorous notation which leaves the reader almost no room for improvisation, particularly in Brossard's and Duguay's works. The given is there, and you have to follow it. You and bissett are much more free, anarchistic.

[Birney]: “Poetry is freedom,” disciplined freedom. I feel free just to stack words, re-arranged from a juke-box title-card, or just letters in columns, and re-stack till I get a statement, something that looks good and also feels good. I don't care if the concrete's clean or dirty, so long as I lay it.

Peter Aichinger (essay date 1979)

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SOURCE: Aichinger, Peter. “Conclusion: People and Politics.” In Earle Birney, pp. 142-63. Boston, Massachusetts: Twayne Publishers, 1979.

[In the following essay, Aichinger addresses the influence of Birney's extensive travels, political allegiances, and global perspectives on his development as a Canadian poet.]


In the 1940s Birney and some of his contemporaries—F. R. Scott, A. M. Klein, and P. K. Page—had begun to define a new attitude in Canadian poetry; where Canadian poets in the nineteenth century had tended to settle for a glorification of nature's beauties and the morally invigorating challenge of the frontier, Birney and the others “… sought in man's own mental and social world for a subject matter they can no longer find in the beauty of nature—a beauty that seems either deceptive or irrelevant.”1 Thus, poems like “David” and “Climbers” acknowledge the beauty of the landscape while they underline its harshness and indifference to the existence of man. Similarly, Birney carefully describes the jeweled landscape of a Nova Scotia winter in “ARRIVALS—Wolfville”—

                                                                                                    a snowscape
clean and cosy as any Christmas card
the small firs like spunwhite candy
spaced on the ice-cream hillocks

—but this observation of the natural scene is only a backdrop upon which Birney projects the experience of a man's death. More to the point, “ARRIVALS—Wolfville” expresses most succinctly Birney's awareness of the solitude of the human condition. The train passengers who alight to see the body of the man whom their train has killed are

… anonymous one to the other
but our breaths write on the air
the kinship of being alive
surrounding the perfect stranger. …

It is not only the dead who are perfect strangers to one another. The title of “four feet between” is an ironic reference to the fact that Birney and the big old Fijian stand only four feet apart as they struggle to communicate while in fact their thought patterns and their backgrounds leave them light ages away from each other. The title also refers to the fact that between them they have four feet, but even this is a barrier to their understanding of each other; the “civilized” man's feet are cut to shreds by the coral while the “primitive” man is unharmed: “… most of all he couldnt understand what hurt my feet.” Finally, by making the Fijian laugh at a witticism, Birney manages to achieve some kind of a rapport, but it is a small dividend considering the effort he has had to make.

This consciousness of man's confusion in the presence of his fellows also provides the theme for “A Walk in Kyoto.” In this poem sex is a metaphor for truth or reality, but it is Birney's problem to decipher the complex riddle of a strangely inverted world. He does not know whether the magnolia in his room is male or female; the resident Deity is hermaphroditic; the actors in the kabuki and takarazuka plays are male and female transvestites; the “small bowed body” of the country itself seems to be symbolized by Birney's inn-maid, or is it in fact vigorous and masculine? If Birney can penetrate the disguises surrounding flower, deity, actors, country, he will be free to communicate with the people and not have to “stand hunched / and clueless like a castaway in the shoals of [his] room.” Then, as in “Cartagena de Indias,” Birney is abruptly provided with a flash of insight. The maid silently points over his shoulder to where a small boy is flying a kite in the shape of a golden carp, a traditional Japanese symbol of virility.2 Suddenly the riddle of this mysterious nation is resolved and an answer provided for the question of

Where in these alleys jammed with competing waves
of signs in two tongues and three scripts
can the simple song of a man be heard?

The boy's act, specifically masculine and clearly sexual—

a carp is rising                    golden and fighting
thrusting its paper body up from the fist
of a small boy

—is one which unites him with boys and men everywhere. His kite, rising “higher / and higher into the endless winds of the world” is a symbol of man's ability to pass over the oceans of ignorance and carry messages to his fellow man.

Still, for every small triumph of this sort there are any number of instances in which Birney is forced to recognize the difficulty if not the impossibility of establishing communications. Too often the barriers of language or custom or economic privilege stand between one man and another. Sometimes, as in “Turbonave Magnolia,” a stupid racist regulation may be blamed for interrupting a blossoming friendship; sometimes, as in “the gray woods exploding,” Birney's instinctive gesture of sympathy is rebuffed out of human pride and fear of getting hurt; more often Birney simply admits that loneliness is the natural condition of man.

This recognition, coupled with Birney's characteristic sense of ironic detachment, tends to set him in the observer's stance, watching, assessing, yet willing to accept friendship if it comes or express love if he feels it. “campus theatre steps,” for example, is a pastiche of excerpts from theater posters and the noises of the world moving freely about its business on foot, in cars, and on trains, set over against the sight of a woman in a wheelchair being laboriously hauled up the steps of the theater. The poet silently observes the suffering of the individual in the presence of an indifferent world bent upon seeking its own pleasure and takes a couple of the blaring poster headlines to express his apocalyptic vision of what will become of such a society: “Tomorrow at 8:30 : : : the Griffins are / COMING.”

It is logical therefore that one should look through Birney's eyes, as it were, to deduce who it is that he admires in the human race. Surprisingly, considering his avowedly pessimistic view of humanity, there is a considerable number of such people, and they include everyone from small children to aborigines, from simple working men to explorers, and certainly one of the most striking of these groups is the series of young men—David, Mickey in the short story “Mickey Was a Swell Guy,” Conrad Kain, Gordon Saunders, Joe Harris—who crop up regularly in Birney's works. Despite their youth they tend to be mature, patient, kindly, generous, and physically robust. Like Beowulf, Percival, and other heroes of antiquity they learn about life through intense personal suffering. In fact, only those people who suffer, including the young professor in “the gray woods exploding,” actually learn about life; the rest tend to be immature or to remain vapid tourists gaping uncomprehendingly upon a life that streams past them.

Occasionally one of these young men makes the journey into self-knowledge alone. Gordon Saunders does this both physically and spiritually in Down the Long Table; the long trip by freight train from Toronto to Vancouver teaches the aloof young academic something about his own country and its inhabitants, but it also initiates him into the world of political and economic reality.

Joe Harris and the professor of “the gray woods exploding” also make their journeys alone in the sense that death has left them bereft of their loved ones, but both are all the more poignant figures in that they are apparently condemned to continue their journeys forever. The young professor is living “a long way off / So he's still alive in a way somewhere,” and the disembodied voice of Joe Harris still pleads, “Which are my sins, padre?”

More often, Birney's young men are accompanied by an even younger follower who also matures and loses something of his innocence as a result of what happens to the principal character. Thus, David is accompanied by Bob, Mickey by the unnamed narrator of the story, Kain by a series of fellow mountain-climbers who are at least junior to him in terms of experience, and Turvey trots doggedly in the track of his hero, Mac, learning, under the veil of humorous predicaments, progressively more bitter lessons. And the bitterest lesson of all for these disciples is the fact of their hero's mortality, and their own, for whether Birney's young men make their journey alone or in the company of a disciple, in the end they are destroyed. Gordon Saunders is brought down by old political enemies; Joe Harris, Mickey, and Mac are killed in one war or another; David chooses his own death rather than life as an invalid; the young professor is hounded by a relentless bureaucracy and the memory of his beloved wife.

In many of these cases, Birney employs the destruction of the young man to make a specifically political statement: the lives of Conrad Kain, Mickey, and Joe Harris are blighted by a perverted economic system which denies them food and education in their youth and any hope of social advancement in later life. They are all, in one way or another, pawns in a system that crushes their potential to live fully as human beings. Yet, the lives and deaths of Birney's young heroes are sometimes dignified by a grandeur of surprisingly godlike and even Christlike quality. Mickey battles for the weak and helpless schoolboys and is wounded in such an encounter; Kain is the good shepherd of the mountains who injured no man:

He seized his land for no sovereign
and left it uncivilized still.
He was reckless only in rescuing others
and his proudest record was this:
that on stormiest edge
or through deepest crevasse
he led no man to his hurt.

But much more striking is the Christian symbolism in “David” and “Joe Harris.” David accepts the blame for Bob's mistake; both David and Joe Harris are wounded in the side; the counterpoint to Joe's words is provided by a chaplain intoning the Christian service for the burial of the dead.

Still, if one reads these two last poems more closely, one realizes that the references to Christianity are misleading. David's death is more suited to a Stoic than a Christian, and Joe denies the existence of a God who can restore him to life: “Nor is there any Lord that will close the wound in my own side.” Perhaps the key to these two poems lies in a third: “Takkakaw Falls.” The river, clearly linked to the ancient river gods, like David loses its foothold in the mountains and plunges to its death, whence after a time it is reborn to rise and thunder once again. The underlying implication of the poems about Birney's young men dying young is that they have become transmuted by their deaths; they have left an ineradicable mark upon the people they have known and have become gods in a New World Parnassus reserved for heroes.

These young men are also linked by their attributes to the explorers whom Birney so clearly admires and who keep cropping up in his poetry. Perhaps his own insatiable wanderlust made him feel a kinship with these men, whether they are figments of his imagination like David and Gordon Saunders or real-life explorers like Cook, Bering, and Bingham. What they all have in common is a restless desire to search and discover even at the risk of their own lives. Birney's early “Atlantic Door” invokes the memories of “Gilbert's hearties and Jellicoe's,” and its companion-piece, “Pacific Door,” acknowledges the sometimes inadvertent heroism that helped to open the West Coast and the Pacific:

long pain and sweating courage chalked
such names as glimmer yet
Drake's crewmen scribbled here their paradise
and dying Bering lost in fog
turned north to mark us off from Asia still
Here cool Cook traced in blood his final bay.

This is the other side of the Birney who despairs of mankind because of its intransigence in the face of self-made disaster. Here he admires the human stubbornness, perseverance, curiosity, and intellectual power that lead men like Hiram Bingham to rediscover lost treasures like Machu Picchu.

Birney also seems to feel this sense of sympathetic rapport with those simple farmers or workers whose labor lends them an ennobling quality. Sometimes, as in “Joe Harris,” the ethos of the working man is direct and poignant: “It is a brief sleep only I need. … And after that to work as never before, in my own land, with my own hand and brain, and to eat the fruits I have grown.” Or, in the thoughts of the “Man on a Tractor” who, unlike Joe Harris, has survived the war and returned to work his own land: “I have come through with my hands and feet / and won the right to plow black earth of my own.” Sometimes Birney's consciousness of something decent in simple men is focused by the fact of death. In “ARRIVALS—Wolfville” his habitual sarcasm is muted as he acknowledges the fragility of human beings in the face of natural forces. Even the dialect-speaking locals, usually the object of Birney's satire and contempt, here have something decent and humane about them; one of them gathers up the scattered papers of the dead lawyer, another brings a blanket from the train to cover the shattered body. Sometimes, as in “the gray woods exploding,” Birney uses his own experiences as a laboring man to bridge an otherwise insurmountable gap between himself and another man. The young professor remains shy and aloof until Birney reaches out to him with stories of his own youthful labors.

Yet, there is another dimension to Birney's sympathy for the worker: not every job requires the skill of a carpenter or a mountaineer. Some jobs—most, perhaps—never provide the satisfaction of conquering Mount Robson or fitting together a beautifully crafted cabinet or cross. The title of “The ebb begins from dream,” for example, refers to the fact that the working masses form a huge tide that daily sweeps from the depths of sleep down to their workplaces and then ebbs wearily back to dreamland each evening. The tide imagery also suggests the manner in which the laboring life wears the individual down; from the flood tide of youth the incessant demands of toil reduce man to a neap tide, glad to trickle back to his final sleeping place and forgetful of the ideas and ideals which inspired him at his setting out. Despite the fact that the closing lines of the poem imply that there is a great, if unconscious, dream of a better and more fulfilling life present in all of mankind, too often the “morning vow” is forgotten in the weariness of the evening; the working man's promise to himself of a better world becomes

salt evening weeds that lie
and rot between the cracks of life
and hopes that waterlogged will never link
with land                    but will be borne until they sink.

This awareness of the harsh and dehumanizing quality of modern industrial life is one of the factors that causes Birney to romanticize people and places from long ago and far away. “November Walk near False Creek Mouth” implies that the mead-tipplers of King Alfred's time and the “tiffin-takers” of British India were in some way aesthetically or even physically superior to Birney's Vancouver contemporaries who drink their “fouroclock chainstore tea.” Something of this tendency can be detected in Birney's poems about exotic places—Peru, the Caribbean, the South Pacific—all of which contain echoes of a belief in the grandeur of the “natural man.” Margaret Atwood noticed that Al Purdy in North of Summer and Farley Mowat in The People of the Deer identify with those Indians or Eskimos whose tribal life has been destroyed by the white man's “civilization,” i.e., those aborigines who are dead and who exist only in artifacts and legend, not the degenerate, contemporary, living ones.3 The same thing can be said of Birney's poems, including Trial of a City, “the mammoth corridors,” “what's so big about GREEN?” and “The shapers: Vancouver”; he does not have a living Indian anywhere in his work. What is more, in “charité esperance et foi” Birney's ironic admiration of the savagery of the three Indian girls and of their conduct in the face of Samuel de Champlain's efforts to civilize them is exactly the opposite of Pratt's attitude toward the Indians in “Brebeuf and His Brethren.” In Birney's estimation the white man deserved all the suffering he got from the natives.

Yet, if his work is taken as a whole, no one could accuse Birney of being rabidly anti-Canadian or of seeing all foreigners or aborigines in a totally flattering light. Although he never becomes rapturous about Canadians, and though many of his poems like “Six-sided square: Actopan” and “To a Hamilton (Ont.) lady thinking to travel” are marred by a condescending irony in favor of the natives, he does come to recognize that other people have their defects too. The speaker in “Sinaloa” is clearly in favor of industrial exploitation of his own country; the Japanese in “Small port in the outer Fijis” are as rapacious as any “northamericans”; while Birney and the old Fijian in “Four feet between” do not condescend to each other or even overrate each other. Birney's early works certainly reveal a typically Canadian naiveté in his tendency to overestimate the moral qualities of Jamaicans, Mexicans, and French Canadians, but with the passage of the years this has been replaced by a more balanced judgment, a willingness to take his friends wherever he can find them. Where once his poems of friendship were directed to people in Belgium, Holland, or the Caribbean, he now writes love poems to a girl in Toronto and friendly banter to a fellow poet in Ameliasburg, Ontario. Foreigners may still be his friends, but the fact of being a foreigner is no longer a necessary condition for earning Birney's admiration.

A similar modification has been extended to Birney's view of the rich and rapacious. When Now Is Time was published, E. K. Brown remarked in a review of the book that for Birney the life of the rich “… is seen from below angrily, and without any real sense of [their] motive. The dramatic quality of Mr. Birney's poetry suffers by the contrast between his ever-ready sympathy with the poor, a sympathy grounded in understanding, and his summary unconvincing presentation of their masters. His bitterness of mood forces its way into almost everything he writes, sometimes to give it great energy and vigour, but often to weaken a note of delight or triumph, or to destroy a touch of reality.”4 In the context of poems like “Hands,” “Joe Harris,” and “Man on a Tractor” these remarks were certainly valid, although the same volume contained poems such as “Anglosaxon Street” and “And the Earth Grow Young Again,” poems which either were not directed against the rich or which specifically satirized the follies of the working class. In any case, in the twenty years between the publication of Now Is Time and Selected Poems Birney's emphasis upon the larceny of the upper classes gradually was transmuted into a stance which committed him to the defense of no party, group, or class, but which rather permitted him to underline the moral failures common to mankind as a whole. As a reviewer of the later book said, “He points constantly and consistently to the contradiction of what would seem to be the legitimate human interests of happiness and fulfillment by the vulgarity, vacuity, sterility—and what would appear to be the wilful plain foolishness—of contemporary purposes and aspirations.”5 Two years earlier, Birney had explained his own sense of identification with Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Corso, and the other Beat poets by saying that “it was a means of passionate identification, by all of us, poets and non-poets, with resentment—an all-out expression of hate, hate of ourselves and detestation of the whole lousy fear-ridden world our ancestors have made, and of our own pious smug daily defence of it.”6 In his 1948 poem “Images in place of logging” Birney had compared human beings and their machines to destructive animals and insects; in “Cucarachas in paradise” (1969) he suggested that cockroaches compare favorably with human beings. Taken in its entirety, then, Birney's poetry does not really show a consistent class bias; it tends to reveal anger and disappointment with the shortcomings of the human race as a whole.

Certainly one of the shortcomings that angers him the most is man's habit of pillaging the environment and exploiting his fellows. Even his earliest poems, like “The Road to Nijmegen,” are passionate condemnations not just of the ravages of war but of the misuse of man's intellectual powers. Anyone who has seen the shattered landscape and the starving children of one war should, theoretically, be capable of preventing another such tragedy, but even then Birney was admitting that mankind was on a “road / that arrives at no future” and that he himself was tortured by the “guilt / in the griefs of the old / and the graves of the young.” Then, after he had returned home and seen New Brunswick, a “great green girl grown sick / with man,” had read the “page of Gaspé” like an old illuminated manuscript carelessly scribbled upon by modern man's factories and banks, and had observed the desolate “Images in place of logging,” he came to something of a watershed in his expressions of contempt for the ravages created by man exploiting nature. “Way to the West” (1965) continues in a more fierce and explicit form Birney's condemnation of a rapacious mankind. Up to this point he had permitted himself the luxury of ironic laughter at foolish developers like the speaker in “Sinaloa.” After all, there is a good deal to be said for the man's point of view; the people of Sinaloa are poor, and a breakwater would be economically better than palm trees; sugarcane plantations are more important than egrets; a grain elevator or a boxcar full of rice is much better than an old fort when one is hungry. The speaker is perfectly correct, from a developer's standpoint, in preferring tractors, refrigerator trucks, and new highways to machetes, oxcarts, and “bugumbilla.” The only point that he is missing is the one made by Birney in “Prosperity in Poza Rica,” namely that wealth derived from the uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources all too seldom trickles down to the poor and hungry. In this poem, oil brings quick profits to lawyers, drillers, and casual laborers, but a few miles away the Indian farmer still scrabbles for his living, plowing his land with a sharpened stick.

By the time he wrote “Way to the West,” however, the softening element of humor had disappeared. Sudbury is evoked as a perfect example of man's ability to create hell on earth. The images are all selected for their shock effect: young demons drag-race their shrieking cars through the sulfurous atmosphere; older ones spit gobs of brown slime on the pavement; with smarting eyes Birney notices that the local rock formations look like “glazed guts on a butcher's marble.” Outside of town, with still twenty miles of this horror to endure, the travelers stop. There is no sound because all nature is dead. They are shocked to realize that in the background the murmuring of a river can be heard; until now its sound had been obscured by the roaring of the pandemonium through which they have just passed. Birney has painted other portraits of this same area, notably in “North of Superior,” which dwells upon its emptiness and solitude, but at least in “North of Superior” the land still has a certain integrity, however barren, of its own. There may not be any knights or dragons in these sparse reaches of rock and spindly trees, but the seasons come and go; the odd trapper follows the track of other living creatures; trees, flowers, and even lichens do live out a natural cycle. In “Way to the West,” on the other hand, man has ensured the destruction of even this simple life cycle, and implicitly has condemned himself as well. Aside from the beer-sodden residents coughing their lungs out, the slogans about “Centre of Free Enterprise” are linked to images of the battlefield, Cape Kennedy, and Vietnam. Free enterprise in the form of unbridled greed seems to involve death and damnation on an international scale.

In contrast to the traditional enthusiasm of poets like Carl Sandburg for the spectacle of North American industrial development, Birney is more impressed by the fact of man's becoming a victim of that which he had wrought to serve him. The last line of “Oil Refinery,” “Eala! we are lost in the spell of his loopings,” is the petroleum-based society's cry of despair when it realizes how it has entangled itself; there is no victory or even heroic death for industrial man.

Birney also came to admit that the exploiters and despoilers of nature are not just “northamericans”; they come in all shapes and colors. From the eager Mexican babbling on about “developing” the state of Sinaloa to the Australian businessmen busily stripping coral off the Great Barrier Reef in “the gray woods exploding” to the Japanese fishing conglomerates sweeping the Pacific Ocean clear of tuna, swordfish, and even sharks, Birney expresses his disgust at the despoliation of a planet. The poem “a small port in the outer Fijis” is especially pertinent here since a variety of races, all of them supposedly civilized, have combined to rape a paradise. The Japanese fishing company is working in close partnership with the Australian port authorities and the New Zealand fishmeal processors. Meanwhile,

The British are all back in Suva
plotting to set Fiji free
The Indians are keeping the shops          & procreating
There are no Fijians in view.

Although Birney's view of humanity is a despairing one, it is often softened or modified when he deals with a specific human being: David, Conrad Kain, Joe Harris. Like Swift, he loves Peter and Paul but detests mankind as a verminous entity. In a sense, the Swiftian analogy can be extended: Birney's vitriolic poems are his Drapier's Letters, an attempt to save mankind's moral coinage from becoming totally debased. In “the mammoth corridors” he reflects upon the fact that “from my own lusts and neckties and novels / from ulcers vitamins bulletins accidia / i lie unshielded.” Accidia is the ultimate form of moral debasement, a state of spiritual sloth and indifference and one to which Birney is well aware that modern man is all too prone.

Birney once said that E. J. Pratt's poetry had been shaped by the belief “that we are men, uniquely nonanimal, and capable of great devotion and splendour either in the preservation or in the destruction of ourselves as men.”7 The other major poet whom Birney seems to admire most strongly is Chaucer, another cheerful humanist, and yet Birney himself, except in rare instances like “Vancouver Lights,” seems incapable of sharing these poets' good-natured acceptance of human folly and their admiration of human grandeur. His work tends rather to be marked by the bitter experience of the Depression, the intellectual constipation of academe, and the facts of war, nuclear proliferation, and ecological disaster. As a result his final judgment of the human race is harsh, often bitter, and sometimes despairing.


From his earliest years Birney had been exposed to those factors which contributed to the radical political views he was to adopt in adulthood. The sturdy nonconforming spirit of his mother's people, his father's beliefs resulting from a lifetime as a Canadian working man, Birney's own exposure to political corruption as a student in Vancouver, and the political activism of the Depression years all contributed to his adoption of the Marxist outlook as a young man.8 When World War II broke out, Birney felt that if the conflict were to have any sense or justification at all it would have to be in the political realm.

The possibility that men might find the strength and unity to reform a society which had produced such debacles as the Great Depression lent a tinge of hope to the prospect of war, and it is this hope which colors those few optimistic passages in Birney's poetry of the 1940s. In “On Going to the Wars” he was able to write confidently that

No hell unspilled by lords of war
Upon the people's flesh has ever
Parched the human heart's endeavour,
The human will to love and truth.

Both “Joe Harris” and “For Steve” are preoccupied with revising the social order. In “Joe Harris” the thoughts of a soldier killed at Dieppe are interpolated with passages from The Shortened Service for the Burial of the Dead as Approved for Use in the Canadian Army. The soldier recalls the events of a life which lasted only twenty-nine years and which included suffering, deprivation, roaming about in a near-hopeless search for work and for some meaning in life, a brief moment of married love, and then the trip overseas to his death. Unlike the soldier in Rupert Brooke's “If I should die,” with his fatalistic and even willing acceptance of death for a beloved country and social order, Joe Harris beseeches “that the world we have builded, and that has brought us to this, will perish with me.” Joe is willing to accept peacefully his own destruction “only if such as my son may go in no fear of mousy hunger, of yard-cops, and the slammed door in a Canada mildewed with the fat and unheeding.” What Joe Harris desires is a socialist society based upon love, reason, and generosity: “Yet it was nothing I learned in pews or glossy books that brought me here or availed me in these times, but only the gods that live in such words as freedom, and truth, love and reason. … I am dead for a creed, not a dogma.” To some extent at least the poem implies Birney's belief that such a society would emerge from the ashes of the war.

In any case, it would be a mistake to exaggerate the extent of Birney's optimism even during the early stages of the war. His very first book of poems contained, among others, such pessimsitic works as “Hands,” “Monody for a Century,” and “Dusk on English Bay,” all of which to a greater or lesser degree are forecasts of the impending slaughter. The title of “Monody for a Century,” for example, suggests that World War II will be the last significant act of the twentieth century. “Hands” is a bitter series of contrasts between the relative innocence of the natural world and the depraved purposes of the human intellect. “Dusk on English Bay” gloomily concedes that there is no Joshua capable of arresting the destructive forces that man has unleashed in the world. In other words, Birney's occasional expressions of hope for a better social order after the war are counterbalanced by the unhappy realization that there may be no world left after this particular war; in such a situation there is very little point in arguing over differing political theories or planning for a better world. Birney's essential pessimism about the future of society is summed up in “War Winters.” The miseries caused by the wretched winter of 1942 are not so much a result of the natural laws ruling the solar system as they are of man's folly; the “winter” to which the poem refers is in the heart of man as much as it is part of the natural world.

Whatever faint optimism Birney felt about the possibility of reforming the social order can also be detected in the companion poems “Man is a Snow” and “… Or a Wind,” which he wrote in the two years immediately following the war. The “snow” of the first poem refers to the coldness of man's heart: “Man is a snow that winters / his own heart's cabin,” and the “useless windows” are his eyes, through which he refuses to see the “lost world” of beauty, myth, and social justice. The second poem, however, suggests that a different course of action is open to mankind if it refuses to be governed by selfishness and acts instead with fraternity and courage. “… Or a Wind” tells us that knowledge can be gained through suffering; mankind's “acid tears” can eat away “these mountain walls,” the walls of ignorance, prejudice, and oppression that have kept man in misery for ages. As long as there is life, “something renews us” and in the end “we may yet roar free … / the great wind of humanity flowing free … / streaming over the future.” This seems to be substantial evidence that as late as 1947 Birney still held out some hope for a new political and social order.

Still, it would be a mistake to overrate this small degree of optimism. Birney was perfectly aware of what could happen to Western society, and in poems like “Ulysses” and “Status Quo” he outlines some of the dangers awaiting an unreformed world. The “soldier” and “sailor” of “Ulysses” are the Canadian veterans, men like the farmer in “Man on a Tractor.” Birney warns them not to be seduced too easily by “Peace, the bitchy Queen.” The “old dog Time” has granted them one last chance to establish a better rule; failing that, the “phony lords” and “suitors”—the prewar Establishment—will be only too quick to enslave the country and its workers once again. On a more universal scale, Birney warns the world at large of what is sure to happen unless profiteering, hatemongering, racism, narrow nationalism, and the unequal distribution of wealth are brought under control.

Birney had actually not been affiliated with any political dogma since he broke with the Trotskyite movement in 1941, and in a sense the poems included in Now Is Time and Strait of Anian were nearly his last hurrah as an optimist for the human race. After this, he rarely expressed a belief in the powers of the human reason. By a curious irony it was not so much the events of World War II as it was his continued observation and experience of the human race that exhausted whatever limited store of optimism he had started out with.

The critics later commented on “Birney's war poetry of the forties with its sense of involvement from the western edge of things, its Canadian scapegoats for a war they never made and yet were somehow responsible for: … its equivocal relations between (and even identity of) guilt and innocence.”9 This awareness of the working man as a pawn of the militarist system is reflected in much of Birney's work written in the late 1940s, as, for example, in the very fine poem “Moon Down Elphinstone,” about two young men who hide out in the mountains in order to escape military service. One of them sneaks back into town to see his friend's sister, finds that she has jilted him, gets drunk, and is picked up by the military police and forced into the army. Some time later he goes back up Mount Elphinstone to tell his friend that his mother is dying; the friend sees only a soldier coming for him and shoots him. When he realizes who the soldier is, he kills himself and the two young men lie together, unburied, in the rain.

This remarkable poem sums up all the sense of fear, frustration, and impotence experienced by ordinary working men in the face of a political system so vast and implacable as to assume the dimensions of Fate. The poem is technically a ballad, but instead of having the aristocratic heroes of the traditional ballad its heroes are New World proletarians; like Turvey, they are poor working stiffs rather than Young Lochinvar or Bonnie Dundee. The action, set in the coastal mountains, ends with typically North American violence, and thematically the poem deals with the perturbing questions of civil disobedience and Canada's fighting of foreign wars in the service of an imperial power. Whether these men serve that power or whether they try to avoid it, it kills them in the end. In “Man on a Tractor,” “Joe Harris,” and “For Steve” there was in every case a living survivor to carry on the struggle, to set right the system that had destroyed the dead soldier. In “Moon Down Elphinstone” there are no survivors; the poem ends in death, rain, and silence.

Most of Birney's work from 1949 to 1960 is marked by his horror at the nuclear calamity hanging over the head of mankind, contrasted by his enunciation of an existential belief in the power of the human heart to find a way through political and social chaos. If, for example, there is a form of socialism implicit in Conrad Kain's actions—he leaves home to help his family and to escape a stratified society, and his personal qualities help him cross the barriers of wealth and privilege in the New World—it is incidental to the central motif of a man succeeding as part of the human race because of his selflessness and his indomitable courage.

These same qualities are fundamental to the character of Mrs. Anyone, the heroine of Trial of a City. Mrs. Anyone does not subscribe to any political creed; in fact, it is her totally nonpolitical stance that saves the day for humanity. Mr. Legion, who questions the successive witnesses in an effort to shape a defense for the capitalist free-market system, only manages to elicit the most damning evidence regarding the effects of such a system. Mr. Powers, the prosecutor, on the other hand, represents a form of suicidal, world-weary nihilism; he is that part of the human spirit which bases itself upon pure reason and, being rationally convinced that man can never produce anything good, resigns itself to self-destruction. Both Legion and Powers base their arguments upon reason and logic, but the deadly impasse which their logic creates can only be resolved by a suprarational, i.e., an existentialist, position based solely upon the sanctity of life and the power of love.

It has been suggested that Legion is a fraud because he is in reality not a member of the working masses but a “folksy capitalist” who exploits them. His expulsion by Mrs. Anyone at the end of the play and her preempting of the name of Legion may thus be seen as representing Birney's long-standing dream of the overthrow of the capitalist exploiters by the masses.10 It is more likely that Trial of a City is one of the works which marks the era in which Birney quit propagandizing for socialism or any other “ism,” realizing, like Mrs. Anyone, that the world wags on regardless of philosophic or political systems, that life is more important than any system. He would continue to remark, often bitterly, upon the ironies and injustices of contemporary life but he no longer advocated any formal party line.

Something of this attitude is also reflected in the outlook of Gordon Saunders in Down the Long Table. Having awakened to the truth about political parties and dogmas, Gordon Saunders still must face the dilemma of what he as an individual can do for the welfare of humanity; does he feel that action of some sort is necessary or even justified? The questions are made all the more urgent by the fact that the time is now the early 1950s and he is facing an inquiry into his activities of twenty years earlier. Like Mrs. Anyone he has a great deal at stake. She was faced with an omnipotent force threatening the life of the race; Saunders, now an eminently successful man, faces professional destruction and possibly jail. Like Mrs. Anyone he responds, not rationally, but existentially:

I believe in man …, even in [his persecutors], for somewhere in them, as in me, is the power, however denied, to achieve the grandeur of the thinking beast, to hope and to imagine, to adventure into change, to create beauty and to share it, and in self-denial itself to assert the importance of their separate selves and the inconsequence of their mortality.11

It was a fortune thing that Birney could still believe in the power of the individual spirit, because during this decade there was much evidence of the failure of mankind to act in concert. He was very depressed by the prospect of nuclear war12 and by the political situation in the world as a whole. In 1957 he concluded a survey of the North American theater, which he considered, with the exception of O'Neill's work, to consist of diverting pap, by saying that the floundering drama was a manifestation of the fact that the world lacked a positive creed:

We know only negatives—that our democratic way of life is not very good and not very democratic but it is not as bad or as undemocratic as the totalitarian way of life; that there is no creed which can yet unify the world and no science, exact or political, which without a creed, may not destroy us. We do not know even whether anything in human affairs is really either comic or tragic any more.13

Here, as in his fiction and poetry, he comforts himself with a belief in the existential power of the human spirit, for in another article he says that the world needs and can attain “that necessary leadership not by a Leader but, as it were, by masses of leaders, men and women who do not necessarily draw their strength from the too-rare commodity of saintliness, nor from the too-abundant reservoir of ruthlessness, but from rational faith based on world knowledge, and some desperate hope, and much charity for that world.”14

This concept of the religion of man may be discerned in Birney's poem “El Greco: Espolio,” first published in 1960. In a sense, the carpenter who is the focus of all eyes in the painting is guilty of the crucifixion; he is a member of the society that condones such a method of execution and he earns part of his living from the manufacture of crosses. Yet he, like Conrad Kain, is essentially apolitical; the fine points of the law are a matter of indifference to him. By his devotion to his craft, and by the skill with which he works, he transcends political and legal considerations. He and Christ are related through the fact that they are both carpenters, and on another level they are the kin of all humanity through their honesty and devotion to what they do. The soldiers, servants of the political hierarchy, may dice and squabble over the prisoner's garments but the honest workman is exonerated from guilt and freed from political entanglements by his preoccupation with doing well the task which has been set for him.

Essentially, the poem deals with the question of whether religion derives from man or from God; the gesture which Christ is making in the carpenter's direction is one of “curious beseechment”; Christ may be seeking “forgiveness or blessing.” For Birney, the only religion that exists is that of the honest craftsman working as best he knows how according to a set of rules that derive from his own spirit.

Birney's experiences in Latin America form the basis of many of his political observations in the early 1960s, possibly because the effects of an inequitable system are much more obvious in that region than they are in the industrialized nations. In Latin America the evidences of poverty, illiteracy, and disease are apparent on every street corner while in North America and Europe they tend to be camouflaged or hidden away out of sight in ghettos. The vivid contrasts between rich and poor and the violent measures taken by the rich to maintain their status must have reminded Birney of the bad old days of the 1930s. In “Cartagena de Indias,” for example, he makes the point that the poor and not-poor form two distinct constituencies, one of which seeks to interact with the other and one which seeks to avoid its social and economic responsibilities. As a result, human beings are reduced to the status of plunderers. Cartagena was long the target of pirates like Drake and Cole and later traded the independence it won under Bolívar to the power of the multinational corporations and the armed forces. Now, Birney, as a tourist, feels that he is one of a new generation of plunderers, profiting from the low tourist prices that result from the country's poverty, and being plundered in turn by the various hawkers and pitchmen who molest and shortchange him.

“Caracas” is another Latin American poem which deals with the theme of men being reduced to ciphers by the pressures of the capitalist system. Men, buildings, the national hero, all are reduced to numbers—“9-mile ooze of slums,” “89 skyscrapers,” “206 bones of Bolívar”—and the numbers ultimately become dollars or are equated to dollars, the “bright bloodsmell of / $$$$$” that draws the sharklike exploiters in their Cadillacs. The fact that the country is the prey of exploiters reflects the persistent failure of revolutions to assuage the woes of the masses. Bolívar's bright promise, like that of the young priest in “Letter to a Cuzco Priest,” has been swept aside as the monied interests ignore the declaration of independence and the “7,000,000 lesser organisms”—their countrymen—in the pursuit of profit.

The picturesque beauty of Latin America is therefore everywhere overshadowed by the threat of revolutions past or to come. The strawberries for which Irapuato is famous remind the poet of the hearts torn out of living prisoners after the long succession of battles fought there, tribe against tribe and nation against nation. The “Sestina for the Ladies of Tehuantepec” sinuously uncovers the menace for all mankind that is inherent in the human character; the “gray iguana” of the poet's brain contains the elements of a murdering dictator like Diaz; the radioactive hotsprings and the earthquakes for which the area is noted are metaphors for the nuclear explosives and the wars that the superpowers are capable of unleashing upon each other. Here, as in “Letter to a Cuzco Priest,” the dangers facing mankind must be staved off by man's own wit and courage; no outside force can do it for him. In this case it is the women of Tehunatepec who represent everything that is enduring, beautiful, and hopeful in the human character.

Unfortunately, there is always the problem that people are too intimidated by the regime, or else live too close to the ills of their own society or are too ignorant to realize what is happening before their very eyes. The speaker in “Most of a Dialogue in Cuzco” is the typical tourist, willing to be hauled bodily over the Peruvian mountains, to admire what the guide tells her to admire, and to accept the opinions of the English-speaking guide, appointed by the government, as to local conditions. It takes not only a poet, but usually a foreign poet, to recognize the defects of a given society and to have the opportunity to speak out against it. Cartagena's Luis Lopez was in self-imposed exile for most of his life and thus felt free to criticize, however benignly, the shortcomings of his countrymen. In the case of Argentina the situation is much more dangerous; a poet who criticizes too loudly is risking death or imprisonment. Therefore, in “Buenos Aires: 1962” Birney is suggesting that only the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda has written with satiric insight about the political oppression in the Argentine; the Argentinian poets have all been effectively silenced.

If Birney was perturbed by what he saw in Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s, he was even more horrified by the war in Vietnam. “Looking from Oregon,” which was written just after the American intervention in the Gulf of Tonkin, is a gloomy reflection upon the casual, thoughtless, recurrent fashion in which man wages war and invites his own disaster. The waves rolling in from the Pacific remind Birney of what is happening halfway around the world where they had their origin, and their recurrent motion is symbolic of the recurrence of warfare in human history. The poem is reminiscent of Matthew Arnold's “Dover Beach” in that the poet's musings include a fatalistic vision of an indifferent natural world, but at least the cruelties of that world involve no sense of guilt, whereas man's persistent movement toward the “thunderheads” of war and destruction necessarily produce an overwhelming sense of guilt and depression over the perversion of his powers of reason.

Birney's views on Canada's involvement in the Vietnam war are set forth in “i accuse us,” a speech which he gave at an anti-Vietnam war rally in Toronto in 1967. To Birney, the Canadians are specialists “in waging / neither-war-nor-peace”; they are unique only in their “dynamic apathy.” At the same time that they remain officially neutral on the Vietnamese war their industries are reaping huge profits selling war materiel to the United States. This hypocrisy vis-à-vis the foreign war is only a reflection of Canada's persistent hypocrisy regarding its domestic problems; while it pretends to be the peace-loving, unified inheritor of two cultural traditions, the British and the French, it is in fact a patchwork of hostile governments each disputing the authority of the national government. Its understanding of its cultural heritage is nebulous, and in the realm of foreign affairs it lacks even the United States' ruthless willingness to wage war openly.

Birney's progressive disenchantment with Canada and its internal squabbles is recorded in the various versions of “Canada: Case History” that he published between 1948 and 1972. The first version was a mildly satirical and fairly accurate musing upon the past and future problems of a vast young country. The prognosis was uncertain, but not hopeless. Twenty years later, Birney was moved to revise the poem for Canada's centennial year, and this time the satire was more scathing; there were references to failing health and moral turpitude. Then the violent aspect of the Quebec separatist movement inspired another version, and a fourth was published in 1972 in which Canada was now diagnosed as being “Schizoid for sure and now a sado-masochist.” After this last bitter effort to express his disgust with Canada's international ineptitude and history of internal discord Birney finally withdrew permission for any of the four versions of the poem to be printed; he was “tired of being forced, by this jeremiad, to pose as a permanent sociological judge-and-jury of my own country. …”15

The decade of the 1970s did nothing to reassure Birney about the political situation either on the national or the international level; if anything, he became even more vitriolic than before in his comments upon current events and the nature of man. In 1974 he told Al Purdy:

The U.S. is an imperial power, which is difficult to like. They are sloughing off whatever democracy they have left with succeeding waves of reaction, neo-fascism and imperialism. Nothing short of a major catastrophe will stop that drift. They may even be breaking up right now, while we are watching. We in Canada must have the courage and willingness to sacrifice and wait for the time when the U.S. will no longer be able to bully.16

This pessimism is reflected in his poetry: his perception of the natural beauty of the Firth of Forth is marred by the shadow of the American nuclear submarine lying beneath the bridge upon which he stands; the garrison mentality that has brought on all the misery and slaughter of the twentieth century is revealed in his “found paean to vancouver by rudyard kipling (1890)”:

… what Vancouver wants
is …
a selection of big guns
a couple of regiments of infantry,
and later a big arsenal. …

In the same volume, what's so big about GREEN?, there is a poem, “underkill,” that brings into focus much of what has happened to the world since Birney published David and Other Poems. “underkill” is about an old trading tavern that used to draw tourists because it had been the scene of a spectacular murder. Now it is boarded up; it can no longer compete for public interest with the massive slaughter of the wars of the twentieth century and the ultimate prospect of total nuclear annihilation. People who used to be titillated at one man's murder now look for bigger things.

In an essay on several Canadian poets, Northrop Frye asks how one can define the Canadian character and answers the question by saying, in part,

We should expect in Canada … a strong suspicion, not of the United States itself, but of the mercantilist Whiggery that won the Revolution and proceeded to squander the resources of a continent, being now engaged in squandering ours. … The Canadian point of view is at once more conservative and more radical than Whiggery, closer both to aristocracy and to democracy than to oligarchy.17

All this is very true of Birney; he has a fierce contempt, expressed both in poetry and prose, for northamerican “mercantile whiggery.” The Damnation of Vancouver [commonly known as the verse play Trial of a City] is based upon this theme, and if one considers that Vancouver is the most American of all Canadian cities, the point becomes even more important.

But what of Birney's democracy, and what of his aristocracy? His democracy has always been of the socialist type; as long as he held any hope whatever for a better political order, he insisted upon the development of a socialist democracy free of the cycles of poverty and warfare that had plagued the Western world throughout most of his lifetime. As for his aristocrats, they tend to be either dead or else they are natural objects: the mountains, the forests of coastal ranges, the changeless sea. These are phenomena which man at his best may admire and even worship; at his worst he may pollute and destroy them. The fact that Birney's human aristocrats, including the Salish chief in Trial of a City, the pre-Conquest Incas, and explorers like Cook and Bering, are all dead suggests that modern man is, after all, a fallen creature.


  1. A. J. M. Smith, Book of Canadian Poetry, [Chicago: University of Chicago Press / Toronto: W. J. Gage, 1943] pp. 28-29.

  2. Birney, The Cow Jumped Over the Moon, p. 96.

  3. Margaret Atwood, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (Toronto, 1972), pp. 95-96.

  4. E. K. Brown, review of Now Is Time, University of Toronto Quarterly, 15 (1946), 273.

  5. Theodore Holmes, review of Selected Poems, 1940-1966, Dalhousie Review, 47 (Autumn 1967), 262.

  6. Birney, The Creative Writer, p. 6.

  7. Birney, “E. J. Pratt & His Critics,” Masks of Poetry: Canadian Critics on Canadian Verse, ed. A. J. M. Smith (Toronto, 1962), p. 93.

  8. For a detailed description of Birney's political development see Frank Davey, Earle Birney, [Toronto: Copp Clark Pub. Co., 1971] pp. 1-19.

  9. Milton Wilson, “Letters in Canada: Poetry, 1964,” University of Toronto Quarterly 34 (1965), 350.

  10. Davey, Birney, p. 98.

  11. Birney, Down the Long Table, p. 298.

  12. Cf. “The Writer and the H-Bomb: Why Create?” Queen's Quarterly 62 (1955), 37-44.

  13. Birney, “North American Drama Today: A Popular Art?” Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, 3rd series, 51 (section 2) (1957), 41-42.

  14. Birney, “The Modern Face of Hubris,” p. 59.

  15. Birney, The Cow Jumped Over the Moon, pp. 90-91.

  16. Purdy, “The Man Who Killed David,” 17.

  17. Frye, “Letters in Canada: Poetry 1952-1960,” p. 101.

Zailig Pollock (essay date 1980)

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SOURCE: Pollock, Zailig. “Earle Birney.” In Profiles in Canadian Literature, Jeffrey M. Heath, pp. 89-93. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Dundurn Press Ltd., 1980.

[In the following essay, Pollock offers a biographical and critical overview of the first four decades of Birney's literary career.]

For the last forty years, Earle Birney has been widely recognized as one of the most important of Canadian poets. One reason for his importance to Canadian readers is that he provides us with an extremely wide-ranging picture of the Canadian experience in the middle years of the twentieth century. When Birney records his personal responses to war and peace, to the city and the wilderness, to the United States, Mexico and more distant parts of the globe, and, of course, to his fellow countrymen, good, bad or indifferent, at least part of his purpose is to speak as a representative Canadian and to interpret Canada to the world and to Canadians themselves.

Apart from his role as an interpreter of the Canadian experience, there is another, more important reason why Birney is one of the central figures in Canadian literature; in the course of his unusually long and varied career he has been responsible for some of the finest poems yet written in Canada. It is as yet too soon to attempt any kind of final judgment on his work, especially since he is still a very active poet, but a number of his poems have already achieved a kind of status as classics. Some examples are “David”, “Vancouver Lights”, “Anglo-Saxon Street”, “Mappemounde”, “The Road to Nijmegen”, “Bushed”, “Sinalóa”, “The Bear on the Delhi Road”, “El Greco: Espolió”, “Cartagena de Indias”. There are and, no doubt, will be others.

Although there is wide agreement about the importance of Birney both as a representative Canadian figure and as the author of a number of fine poems, there is less agreement about the exact nature of his overall achievement. The careers of the greatest poets give us a sense of a life devoted to exploring some central vision in an increasingly profound way as the poet gradually achieves greater mastery of his art and a richer experience of life. Has this been true of Birney? Do his poems as a whole add up to a coherent, satisfying vision?

One of the best ways of getting a sense of what is central to Birney's work is to examine the table of contents of his Collected Poems (1975). Unlike most such collections, in which the poems are arranged chronologically, or according to the themes or forms, Birney's collection is organized geographically. All the sections but one (“War”) are linked to particular places: Canada, U.S.A., North Pacific, Europe, Mexico, Asia, South America and the Caribbean, Australia and New Zealand, South Pacific. In the Collected Poems, as in several earlier volumes (notably Ice Cod Bell or Stone and Near False Creek Mouth), the arrangement of the poems points to the way Birney sees his role both as a man and as a poet. This role, which is central to his work in many ways, is that of a traveller. From the evidence of his life and work, Birney seems to conceive of his own, and every man's experience of the world as a kind of journey with no clear pre-conceived end in sight, a journey down a “road that arrives at no future” (“The Road to Nijmegen”), following a “not always predictable route” (“Omnibus”).

In Birney's autobiographical novel, Down the Long Table, the central character, George Saunders, says, “I think perhaps the act of travelling is the important thing.”1 This statement stands as an excellent description of Birney's life. For most of his career as a poet, Birney has been an academic, primarily at the University of British Columbia. In this he is like many other Canadian writers who seek support and refuge in the academic world. But Birney has stated many times that he found his academic career almost intolerably restrictive; energies that should have gone into creative writing were forced into less worthwhile and less satisfactory channels. Whether or not Birney's comments on the academic life are completely fair, they are typical of his attitude throughout his life to whatever has seemed to limit him, to get in the way of exploring the world around him on his own terms, free of outside direction and interference. We see this attitude particularly clearly in Birney's two novels, Turvey and Down the Long Table, the first growing out of his army service and the second out of his involvement in the Trotskyite movement. Both experiences are portrayed as a kind of entrapment, as an attempt by authority to deny individual freedom. The subtitle of Turvey—A Military Picaresque—is very much to the point, since picaresque novels describe the aimless wanderings of free-spirited heroes. The most striking evidence of Birney's own picaresque attitude to life, of the spiritual restlessness which prevents him from settling into a comfortable niche, has been his trips to all corners of the world, which have become more frequent as he has grown older. But no matter where he is, no matter how much actual physical distance he has put between himself and the restrictions he seeks to escape, Birney is still not satisfied. He is obsessed with the idea that the apparent freedom and renewal he has found through his travels can lead to another kind of entrapment—in the dehumanizing role of tourist or, more recently, of cultural ambassador. No matter what situation he finds himself in, then, Birney feels the need to break out and move on, to continue his journey wherever it will lead him.

As we might expect from what we know of his biography, the central theme of Birney's poetry is a vision of life as a never-ending journey in which what really matters is leaving the limitations of the past behind, rather than arriving at some definable goal in the future. Most of Birney's finest poems (for example, “David”, “The Road to Nijmegen”, “Mappemounde”, “Bushed”, “The Bear on the Delhi Road”, “Walk in Kyoto”, “Cartagena de Indias”, “Machu-Picchu”, “Arrivals”,) explore a similar kind of experience. It is the experience of someone—mountain climber, soldier, medieval sailor, tourist, cultural ambassador—who sets out on a journey which leads to an unexpected confrontation with a previously unknown reality. The effect is one of dislocation. Man's easy confidence in his power and wisdom is questioned and there is an intense awareness of human vulnerability. Some of these poems offer hope; many do not. But in all of them there is a sense that, even though we may not know where, if anywhere, the journey of life is leading us, we must be prepared to keep moving, to find new ways of understanding who we are.

Birney's desire to keep moving through process of continuous exploration and renewal is reflected in his attitude to poetic technique. Without any doubt, Birney's work exhibits the widest range of technique of any Canadian poet. His poetic career, in fact, can be seen as a continuous journey through most of the poetic techniques available to poets writing in the twentieth century. Birney has said, “Living art, like anything else, stays alive only by changing. The young artist must constantly examine the forms and the aesthetic theories he has inherited; he must reject most of them, and he must search for new ones.”2 As Birney's career shows, he has more than “the young artist” in mind here.

Over the years there has been a general tendency in the development of Birney's technique and, although it is impossible to draw sharp dividing lines, it is perhaps useful to distinguish between an earlier and a later period in his career, separated by the almost ten years between Trial of a City (1953) and Ice Cod Bell or Stone (1962) during which he published no poetry. One way of describing the difference between the two periods is to say that Birney's poetry, like Canadian poetry in general, has gradually become less British and more American. Birney's earlier poetry is deeply influenced by a wide range of British models from the Anglo-Saxon era of a thousand years ago to the work of W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender in the thirties and forties. The poetry which Birney writes in this period tends to be impersonal in tone, suggesting broad generalizations about universal issues. Its style is usually rhetorical and highly polished. By the beginning of the sixties Birney has become interested in certain movements in American poetry which encourage him to adopt a more personal tone. He becomes more concerned with the particular details of his own experiences, rather than with broad generalizations, and his style draws much more on the rhythms, vocabulary and syntax of every day speech.

When Birney's first book, David and Other Poems (1942), appeared, it was clear that he was already a highly accomplished craftsman. One of the most striking things about the volume, and the ones that followed at regular intervals over the next decade—Now is Time (1945), Strait of Anian (1948), Trial of a City (1952)—is the great attention Birney pays to the formal qualities of his poems, to rhythm, rhyme, sound effects, image patterns, and so forth. “David”, which is still Birney's best known work, is an excellent example. Like many of Birney's earlier works, it is written in a strict stanzaic form, in this case quatrains with an ABBA rhyme scheme. The rhymes are deliberately imperfect (survey / surly; steeped / week-ends) and do not therefore call attention to themselves and disrupt the forward thrust of the narrative, which is emphasized by many run-on lines. The forward thrust of the narrative is further emphasized by an underlying anapestic rhythm which Birney consciously adopted from The Conquistador by Archibald MacLeish. Throughout the poem there is extensive use of alliteration (“To a curling lake and lost the lure of the faceted”) and assonance (“Slipped from his holds and hung by the quivering pick”) to underline the poem's frequent shifts in mood. The narrative is carefully structured, especially through the use of foreshadowing to give full weight to the climax, and there is an equally careful structure of imagery. The only major weakness of “David”, and this is true of many of the earlier poems, is a certain lack of spontaneity; the dialogue between Bob and David is particularly stiff. Although perhaps no other poem by Birney manages to bring together so many formal elements in a single coherent structure, all of the earlier poems, whether in strict metrical forms, blank verse, free verse, or even a mixture of prose and verse, reflect Birney's concern with shaping his experiences into carefully organized self-contained structures.

Perhaps the most striking evidence of Birney's concern with formal structures in this period is his frequent imitating of Anglo-Saxon verse forms. Birney does not do this simply to show off his expertise as an Old English scholar. There is something in the Anglo-Saxons' bleak but heroic vision which appeals to Birney, and what is also appealing to him is that this vision is expressed in a very formal, highly organized manner. Briefly, each line of Anglo-Saxon verse consists of four beats divided in two by a caesura or pause. Lines do not rhyme, but the two halves of each line are linked by alliteration. The Anglo-Saxon poets make much use of “kennings” or metaphorical compound words such as “whale-road” for sea. Birney's most direct imitations of Anglo-Saxon verse in this period are “Anglo-Saxon Street”, “Mappemounde”, “War Winters”, and the speech of Professor E. O. Seen in “Trial of a City”. In each case Birney expects the reader's awareness of the form to influence his attitude to the subject matter. Other poems such as “Vancouver Lights”, “Hands”, and perhaps even “David”, while they do not strictly imitate Anglo-Saxon verse, show signs of its influence in rhythm, alliteration and the general sense of man's place in the universe.

The climax of Birney's earlier period is the poetic drama, “Trial of a City”. In this work a hearing is convened to determine whether Vancouver, representing modern industrial society, ought to be destroyed. The play is an amazing feat of technical virtuosity. Each character speaks in a distinctive style of verse or prose, and, among them, the speeches cover the whole range of English literature from the Anglo-Saxon speech of Professor E. O. Seen describing the ancient geological history of Vancouver to the mysterious language of Joycean wordplays which Birney has invented for Gabriel Powers, the representative of the future. However, the play is not just a display of verbal fireworks. It contains some of Birney's finest poetry, and the prose speeches of the old-time bartender Gassy Jack Deighton point forward to Birney's growing mastery of the rhythms of everyday speech which will be so much a part of his later work.

After a gap of ten years, Ice Cod Bell or Stone (1962) marked the beginning of a new period of poetic activity for Birney that has continued since without a break. The poetry in this volume is much more personal in tone than anything that has gone before. In some of the poems, Birney is still concerned with working his experiences up in a consciously literary manner; examples are “The Bear on the Delhi Road” with its explicit comments on myth and reality or “Walk in Kyoto” with its symbolic use of Gulliver's Travels. But, on the whole, Birney is intent on communicating certain intense experiences in themselves rather than on generalizing from them in an obvious way. This is especially true of the “Mexico” poems which look forward to the many travel poems of the later volumes. “Sinalóa” is an excellent example of the kind of poem Birney is now writing. It is a tirade, in unrhymed seven-line stanzas with increasingly obscene refrains, addressed by a furiously indignant Mexican to a naive and condescending tourist. The poem is particularly striking for its totally convincing re-creation of the broken but eloquent English of the speaker. Even more striking is the way in which Birney suggests a quite complex attitude towards the speaker who, though he represents the “development at all cost” mentality which Birney had attacked so vehemently in “Trial of a City”, still manages to keep our sympathy because of his independent refusal to play along with the clichés of tourist guidebooks. Ten or fifteen years earlier, Birney would not have been able to create such a vivid voice, so attractive and at the same time so repellent, nor would he have been willing to let it simply speak for itself.

In Birney's next volume, Near False Creek Mouth (1964), the personal, informal tone of the verse is even more pronounced. The poems in this volume have a new look which is to dominate Birney's work from now on: the lines tend to be shorter than they have been in the past and there is very little punctuation. The changes are a result of Birney's interest in the Projective Verse theories of a group of American poets known as the Black Mountain School. These poets argue that the formal restrictions of earlier poetry are obsolete and that the length of lines of verse should be determined by the organic rhythms of the individual poet's breath and pulse rate. It is obvious why these theories would have an appeal to Birney, who was searching for ways of making his poems more immediate and personal.

Birney's next collection of new verse strikes out in a totally unexpected direction. “pnomes jukollages & other stunzas” (1969) is not a traditional bound volume but an envelope containing several loose sheets of experimental verse, most notably several concrete poems, “shapomes” as Birney calls them, in which the shape formed by the letters on the page is an important element of the poem, sometimes the most important element. Birney had earlier shown an interest in emphasizing the meaning of the poems through visual effects, but never to the same extent as in this collection. Like his gradual adoption of a more personal voice, the move towards concrete poetry seems, at least in part, to be an attempt to make the actual experience of reading his poems more immediate and vivid. The eddying single line of “Like an Eddy” (intended to be hung as a mobile) or the complicated interlocking structures of the “Buildings” poems, force the reader's eye to re-enact the experience being described. Some of the concrete poems have struck many of Birney's readers as trivial games, but, at their best, they provide a new kind of experience which his earlier verse only hinted at.

As far as technique is concerned, Birney's work over the last decade has not contained any surprising innovations. This is perhaps not unexpected in a poet of Birney's years, but considering his past performance he may yet have some surprises in store for us.

Does the striking change over the years in Birney's attitude to poetic form reflect, in some way, a larger change in attitude to experience as a whole? It can be argued that it does. In his early works—poems such as “David”, “Vancouver Lights”, “Mappemounde”, “The Road to Nijmegen”, “Bushed”, “Trial of a City”—Birney returns again and again to the theme of man's struggle to find some meaningful order in a universe which may be totally indifferent or even hostile to him. This struggle is parallelled by Birney's own struggle as a poet to give shape to his experiences through coherent, carefully worked out verbal structures. In other words, technique reflects theme. The later Birney seems to see things differently. Whether he is a wiser man or merely a disillusioned one is hard to say. In any case, he is no longer as concerned with trying to find larger patterns and meanings in existence. On the one hand he is profoundly pessimistic about humanity's ultimate fate; on the other he values more than ever vivid moments of human contact, especially with the uncorrupted young—young poets or the young woman to whom he addresses his love poems. Since the later Birney is not as driven as he once was by the desire to give meaning to life as a whole, he abandons the ambitious formal structures of his earlier works for a more personal kind of poetry, more suited to recording immediate experiences and sensations. It is the poetry of a man more at ease with himself, less tortured by the need to discover and express universal truths. The division between earlier and later Birney is, of course, a crude one, but anyone comparing, say, “Vancouver Lights” and “Four Feet Between” can see the difference. The later poem has a vividness and an immediacy which the earlier one lacks, but the earlier poem, like many of the best poems of this period, has a certain kind of focussed, concentrated intensity, a “fateful quality” expressed through “rock hard rhetoric” as Al Purdy puts it,3 which is rare among the later poems. It is impossible to say which Birney future readers will prefer, but whatever the verdict of posterity, Canadian literature is undoubtedly richer as a result of Birney's journey through the “not always predictable route” of his poetry.


  1. Down the Long Table (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1975), p. 238.

  2. The Creative Writer (Toronto: CBC Publications, 1966), p. 71.

  3. “A Pair of 10-Foot Concrete Shoes”, The Fiddlehead, No. 65 (1965), p. 75.

Laurence Steven (essay date fall/winter 1981)

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SOURCE: Steven, Laurence. “Purging the Fearful Ghosts of Separateness: A Study of Earle Birney's Revisions.” Canadian Poetry, no. 9 (fall/winter 1981): 1-15.

[In the following essay, Steven compares revisions of Birney's poems “Transcontinental” and “Man Is a Snow.”]

Certain poets display an intense concern for craft through the revisions they make to their work. W. B. Yeats, to take the obvious example, had no belief in the inviolability of the published text. His revisions are a manifestation, at the textual level, of Yeats's remarkable ability for self-rejuvenation. In Canada, Earle Birney's poetic career has a similar vitality. As with Yeats, Birney's extensive revising, which reveals developments of theme, poetic stance, and technique, is evidence that he has in no way allowed himself to calcify. George Woodcock puts it aptly when he says, “This sense that the future is always open, that nothing written is ever quite finished while its author is still alive, is one of Birney's special characteristics”.1

Considering the amount of revising Birney has undertaken (only eight of ninety-nine poems reprinted in Selected Poems 1940-1966 were not altered)2, one might reasonably expect to find critical studies dealing exclusively with this aspect of his work. These studies, unfortunately, do not exist. I hope this article may serve to entice other critics into this neglected area by showing, in a study of the published versions of only two poems—“Transcontinental” and “Man Is A Snow”—how rich a field Birney's revisions are.3

In The Creative Writer Birney says “the poet and the poetic novelist are … trailed by the spectres of their experiences, and the poems or the novels are the counter-spells they create, to try to prevent these spectres from becoming permanent hallucinations.”4 He goes on to say it took him two months and nine drafts to exorcize the ghosts which plagued him in the writing of “Bushed”. The first draft was satiric and was abandoned because it “was flip, too much on the outside.”5 He realized “there was some far deeper emotion I wanted to get at than satiric amusement.”6 In the final version of the poem he did get to that deeper emotion, got inside the experience of the old trapper and away from the moral-political satire of professors and atom bombs which had been the original impetus for the poem. The final significance of “Bushed” is best expressed by Birney himself:

if the poem itself has, in any way, made you feel more understanding, more tolerant, of my old mad trapper in his cabin—if it has in any way “universalized” him, brought him and you and me into some community of sharing of the mysterious human condition, however briefly—then it serves in [an] important capacity, for you. For me it had already served when it purged me of yet one more of the fearful ghosts of my separateness.7

The operative movement here is from separateness to community, from a poetic stance which is “on the outside”, and potentially satiric, to one reflecting a “far deeper emotion” and manifesting tolerance and understanding. This movement can be seen in the overall development of Birney's canon; as Richard Robillard observes in his introductory study of Birney:

For all their flexibility, many of the earlier poems suggested fixed perspectives; it was a poetry of metaphor, “conceits”, allegories, pastoral worlds from which the speakers saw men at a distance; and also a poetry of urgent but impersonal tones. This kind of poetry persists, but rather than move within the frames of metaphor, many of the travel-poems lead outward; in them, “nature” (with the rather fixed attitudes earlier implied in that term) becomes “experience”. The speakers in the travel-poems come to accept their personalities …8

While what Robillard says is true on the general level, he fails to take into account the fact that a very similar movement takes place in Birney's creative process itself. This movement is reflected in his revisions, as his comments on “Bushed” indicate, and as my studies confirm. The dominant trend of the revisions is toward broadening the perspective, toward expanding the poetic canvas to include more of the possibilities of life.


Those unfamiliar with the early history of “Transcontinental” may be surprised to learn that on its first and second appearances in print it was entitled “New Brunswick”. The change of name, itself indicative of a widening of perspective, did not appear until the third version was published in 1960, thirteen years after the original publication in 1947. The first two versions do display a fixed and rhetorical perspective through which they view man's rape of nature. But whereas the first version manifests, rather obliquely because of its ill-considered stridency, a sincere concern for nature, the second version, although technically more aware, appears to be only peripherally concerned with the “great green girl”. The placing of images and choice of diction draw attention to Birney's technical skill and away from his subject.

Here is the first version of “Transcontinental” as it appeared in Contemporary Verse, XXI (Summer, 1947), 6:


Now in your chaircars, like clever gnits
on a plush caterpillar, crawl
over this sometime garden and note
the birch like nerves in the vegetable body.
Glance from the folders adazzle in your laps
and observe the truth beyond Tantramar's loops.
Consider this great green girl growing sick,
sick with man, sick with the likes of you.
Toes mottled long ago by the soak
of ports; ankles rashed with stubble,
papulous with stumps and scabbed with stables.
Pause where magotting miners bore her bones
to power your equipage,
or where scars of burns widening across the flesh,
tug scum in her blue eyes,
logjams clogging the blood's flow,
ensure you a continuity of travelfolders.
O she is ill, her skin is creased with your going and coming,
and you trail in her face the stale breath of her own dooming.
She is too big and strong, I think, to die of this disease,
but she will grow quickly old, this maiden,
old with you,
nor have you any medicine will help
except the lime of your own bodies.

The rigid, rhetorical perspective is established quite clearly in the first line. The “your” signals a distinct separation between the speaker and the train riders which continues throughout the poem and tends to absolve the speaker of guilt while implicating everyone else: “sick with the likes of you”, “power your equipage”, “old with you”. This strident repetition, combined with the effects of the imperative mood in the first three stanzas and the rhetorical apostrophe in the fourth, betrays an idealistic fervour threatened with disillusionment. Birney is attempting to impose a moral perspective on the situation rather than evolve one out of it. His frustration with mankind forces him to retreat to the security of an impersonal stance from which he can rage at the follies of the “clever gnits”. The lack of any true foundation for this perspective is seen, ironically, in the cynical conclusion to the poem: “nor have you any medicine will help / except the lime of your own bodies.” If this is all man can contribute to the healing of nature the adamant condemnatory stance seems pointless. This stance is used, ostensibly, to change man's attitudes and behaviour through shocking and shaming him. Birney, however, is liable to draw the anger of a reader who suddenly finds, after enduring the poet's bitter castigation, that he has been given no avenue through which to change the situation.

That Birney allows this confusion to arise, between the poet's stance and the results it is intended to achieve, indicates that he does not fully understand the implications of the events described. He has isolated himself too completely from the experience to be able to see all sides of it. Although the attitude to nature is a sincere concern, the attitude to man is simply one of sarcasm and disgust. And this attitude, being so prominent, tends to obscure the other. The phrase “power your equipage”, for example, was quite probably used to illustrate man's abstraction from nature. But when the speaker's stance admits of no connection with sordid mankind the phrase appears only as an accusation hurled at us by someone of loftier vision. And since we know the voice belongs only to another man we are angered by its presumption, see the phrase as pretentious, and fail to see its original import. Again, the fine image of the “great green girl”, with its alliteration reinforcing the feeling of vastness, is almost completely obscured by the ponderous repetition and strident accusatory tone of “sick, / sick with man, sick with the likes of you.”

To prevent his concern for nature from being obscured Birney needs to modify his attitude to man, needs to make his assertions more tentative and, therefore, more tolerant, needs, in fact, to admit his own humanity. The only tentative statement in this version comes in line twenty and deals with nature: “She is too big and strong, I think, to die of this disease”. The tentativeness, however, appears somewhat fraudulent beside the extremely assertive stance maintained elsewhere. In its context, it seems gratuitous, tossed off.

Confusion about what the experience demands, seen on one level through the inconsistency of poetic stance, is seen on another level in the choice of setting for the poem. The title, “New Brunswick”, and the reference to “Tantramar's loops”, by setting up regional associations in the reader's mind, force the poem into a specific locale. Yet, at the same time, we are told imperatively to “observe the truth beyond Tantramar's loops” [my emphasis]. Though this shift in perspective from a specific locale to a more general vision is not problematic in itself—Birney has done this type of shift numerous times in, for example, poems such as “Vancouver Lights” and “November Walk Near False Creek Mouth”—when the shift combines with the inconsistency of tone and poetic stance seen earlier, one is left slightly unsure how to respond to the poem as a whole; left wondering, in fact, whether Birney has seriously considered the response he wants to evoke.

The second version of the poem appeared less than a year later (March 1948) in Strait of Anian:



Now in your chaircars like clever gnits
in a plush caterpillar, crawl
through a sometime garden and note
the birch like whitening hairs in the vegetable head.
Glance from your dazzle of folders and leap
to a truth beyond Tantramar's loops.
Behold this great green girl grown sick
with man, sick with the likes of you.
Toes mottled long ago by soak
of seaports, ankles rashed with stubble,
papulous with stumps and scarred with stables.
Pause where maggoting miners bore her bones
to feed your crawling host.
Yes, wide across her flesh the burns,
and in her lakeblue eyes the scum of tugs
and in her blood the clogging logs
ensure you continuity of travelfolders.
O she is ill, her skin is creased with your going and coming,
and you trail in her face the stale breath of her dooming.
I think she is too big and strong to die
of this disease, but she grows quickly old,
this lady, old with you,
nor have you any medicine to aid
except the speck of lime you will bequeath her.

Here, despite a greater technical awareness, the inconsistencies of version one persist. The imperative rhetorical stance takes on a distinctly superior note with the change, in line seven, from “Consider” to “Behold”, and this tone is furthered in line fourteen with the addition of the rhetorical “Yes” to introduce another indictment. The last line, which in rhythm and sound is much more fluid than its counterpart in version one, has its true poetic value undercut by the cynicism and superiority of “speck” and “bequeath”. If the situation is as hopeless as the conclusion makes it, the cynicism and superiority have no point and appear as slick self-indulgence exercised at the expense of a reader who has been rendered helpless. On the other hand, if the situation is not completely hopeless—and it is this that Birney's continued haranguing seems to suggest—then the conclusion is a mistake in judgement. Some avenue of hope, however small, must be left accessible to the reader. And if there is an avenue of hope it is doubtful whether Birney's strident rhetorical stance is going to entice many readers into exploring it. In addition, the accent of superiority found in this version only serves to widen the already formidable gap between poet and reader seen in the continued use of “you” and “your” to designate the accused.

The tentativeness of “I think” in line twenty has been maintained, but in the first version it came in the middle of the line and was set off by commas, suggesting that the poet is actually pondering the situation; in this version it introduces the line. If the tentativeness appeared somewhat fraudulent in version one because of the sustained assertiveness elsewhere, here, placed in the forceful position at the beginning of the line and surrounded by an arrogant superiority, its element of insincerity increases.

The inconsistency of locale becomes more problematic with the addition of the subtitle—“(Post Sir Charles G. D. Roberts)”. This adds an element of literary history to the physical specificity of New Brunswick and Tantramar. Combined, these features militate against the potential universality of the perception and increase the potential for confusion in the reader's response.

Greater technical skill does not, in itself, make for a better poem. Often technical facility serves to distract us from discrepancies between theme and presentation. In lines fifteen and sixteen, for example, the use of assonance and half-rhyme to reinforce the parallel structure in “scum of tugs” and “clogging logs” displays an increased awareness of sound. Also, the placing of these phrases, with their hard g's, at the end of their respective lines draws us away from a contemplation of nature and forces man's effect upon nature into prominence. Although this is done quite skillfully, it has the effect, ironically enough, of pushing nature into the background. While Birney harangues us about our guilt, he is manifesting, stylistically and in tone, an attitude little concerned with nature.

Man's unthinking arrogance in his dealings with nature produces the results Birney so clearly sees. Faced with an apparently insoluble problem, Birney, in frustration and anger, lashes out at despicable mankind from his arrogant, rhetorical poetic stance. The irony is that in maintaining this stance he is, in fact, perpetuating the problem. The fixed, rhetorical perspective allows Birney a measure of poetic security, allows him to be the voice crying in the wilderness. Unfortunately, it also effectively thwarts any possibility of change.

Before he can seriously present any hope of a change in our relationship to nature Birney has to relinquish his rigid stance, needs to come in from the wilderness and join his fellow men. We can see this happening in the next version of the poem, published in Poetry Northwest, II (Winter, 1960-61)9:


Crawling across this sometime garden
now in our chaircars like clever nits
in a plush caterpillar should we take time
to glance from our dazzle of folders
and behold this great green girl grown sick
with man, sick with the likes of us?
Toes mottled long ago by soak of seaports
ankles rashed with stubble
belly papulous with stumps?
And should we note where maggoting miners
still bore her bones to feed our crawling host
or consider the scars across her breasts
the scum of tugs upon her lakeblue eyes
the clogging logs within her blood—
in the pause between our magazines?
For certainly she is ill, her skin
is creased with our coming and going
and we trail in her face the dark breath of her dooming.
It is true she is too big and strong to die
of this disease but she grows quickly old,
this lady, old with us
nor have we any antibodies for her aid
except our own.

The first thing we notice in this version, beyond the change of name, is the change in poetic stance from “your” and “you” to “our” and “us”—“our chaircars”, “our dazzle of folders”, “sick with the likes of us”. Birney has become a passenger on the train and now implicates himself, as well as the rest of us, in the guilt consequent upon our rape of nature. This in turn produces a sincerely humble tone which replaces the strident rhetoric with a polite reserve: “For certainly she is ill”.

The humility and reserve are a valid response to a more realistic view of the situation. They indicate an honest desire to manifest a change in our relationship to nature. Whereas in the earlier versions Birney's strident attempt to impose a moral perspective on the situation ironically reflects man's unthinking imposition on and consequent destruction of nature, in this version the humble, shameful tone and note of reserve reflect a more suitable relationship to the great, green lady who needs to be treated with a certain humility, decorum and respect. The new relationship is apparent in certain changes Birney makes in the positioning of images. In lines thirteen and fourteen (lines fifteen and sixteen in the last version) the images have been reversed; those referring to man's pollution—“scum of tugs” and “clogging logs”—now come first, and those referring to nature—“lakeblue eyes” and “within her blood”—end the lines. Nature now takes the prominent position. Birney does not forget what man has done to her but the emphasis lies on what she is, or has been, rather than on man's destructiveness. There is a wistfulness present which conveys nature's importance more effectively than strident indignation can do. After the harsh consonantal stops of “tugs”, the decline in intonation from “lakeblue” to the soft consonantal glide in “eyes”, draws us toward a subdued contemplation. And the same effect is captured more forcefully by the dash at the end of line fourteen.

If this new attitude to nature is more than a superficial gesture we can expect to find it reflected also in the relationship of man to man. And we do find it there, in the series of questions which forms the new structural framework of the poem and carries the images forward. In the two “New Brunswick” versions the progressions were made through rhetorical assertion; in “Transcontinental” Birney asks “should we take time / to glance … and behold … ?”, “And should we note … or consider … in the pause between our magazines?” The questions invite the reader to offer an affirmative response—yes, we should be concerned; the poetic stance of the earlier versions, in condemning mankind and separating the poet from us, denied the reader any chance to respond positively.

The inability to understand that real concern for nature must inevitably be combined with concern for man was manifested, in the early versions, in the cynical conclusions. In this version of “Transcontinental” the questions express a tentative hope which is finally stated at the end of the poem: “nor have we any antibodies for her aid / except our own.” The final line is powerful in its starkness, and has a more lasting effect than the slick cynicism of the last line of the second version. There the superior, mocking stance separated us from the poet and his concerns; here the reader is together with the poet in the final “our”. A new relationship has been tentatively established.

We see, then, that while in the “New Brunswick” versions Birney works from a fixed perspective, a closed system, in this version he allows a more viable, open-ended perspective to grow out of the poem. Certainly the metaphor of nature as the “great green girl” still governs the poem, but our response to this metaphor is not governed by an external, rigid poetic voice. Even the new title reflects the widening of perspective. We are no longer confined to a narrow, historical locale; now the entire continent is involved. Birney takes the advice he was giving to the rest of us earlier, leaps to a truth beyond Tantramar's loops. The experience is made more universal, through tolerance and understanding.

In spite of this overall improvement line nineteen registers a slight inconsistency of tone: “It is true she is too big and strong to die”. Though it is modified by the tentativeness of the surrounding context, the assertiveness in this line seems at odds with a conclusion that places the survival of nature squarely in our hands.

This line survives through the next two published versions—Transatlantic Review, XXII (1966), and Selected Poems 1940-196610—which contain quite minor changes. The final version of the poem, the one eventually included in the Collected Poems (1975), first appeared in an anthology entitled Listen!, published by Metheun in 1972 under the editorship of Homer Hogan. Here, besides two minor verbal changes, there is one more substantial revision. In line nineteen the assertiveness of version three has been modified: “She is too big and strong perhaps to die.” The addition of “perhaps” gives the line that element of tentativeness which is needed both to unify the tone and to prevent the line from sapping strength from the final observations.

Although the major revisions occurred in the third version, the poem took twenty-five years to assume its final form. This is certainly evidence of a dynamic creative process and indicates the kind of reading we need to do when approaching Birney's poetry. The degree of concern for subject and craft seen in the evolution of “Transcontinental” is not apparent in all Birney's poems, to be sure, but it is there in many; and to fail to recognize it, through ease of either praise or censure, is to deny the poetry an honest evaluation, which is its due.


In his perceptive study of Birney's poetry W. E. Fredeman observes that “Generally speaking, Birney's forte is the succinct, elliptical, highly compressed, tightly woven poem in which unity can be sustained without affectation or artificiality.”11 In the final version of “Man Is A Snow” these characteristics become the distinctive qualities of one of Birney's most successful poems. The success did not come all at once; revision over a period of nineteen years was needed to bring the poem to its final form.

Although the universal metaphor of the title indicates a fixed perspective toward man, the expression of this perspective changes greatly between the first and final versions of the poem. It is, as with “Transcontinental”, a movement from an external to an internal perspective. Birney looks much more deeply into the situation and, consequently, understands its implications more clearly. This results in a desire and ability to let the perception communicate itself as much as possible. Superfluous elements are discarded, a fundamental structure emerges which orders and informs the theme, and the awareness of the potential of rhythm and sound is heightened.

“Man Is A Snow” had its first appearance in the Queen's Quarterly, 54 (1947):


I tell you the wilderness we fell
is nothing to the one we breed.
Not the orange lynx of flame
leaping higher each year in the trees
nor the saw's bright whine
where the cougar glides
into myth, but the forest succumbing
to rotograved lies, to the slum
and crucifix towns in Holland.
We are more than the Indians,
no greater, and torture
their history and horses
to make a tourists' rodeo.
Not the fouling of Columbia's coils
but the blood rushing more devious
than any river's, and colder.
Not the monotonous usurpation of wheat
but the gorging
while continents starve, the hoarding
and the blankness on the face of the gatherers.
Beauty goes
or stays and we do not know it.
Man is a snow
that cracks the trees' red arches.
Each heart
is a wintered cabin
where the frosted nail shrinks in the boards
and pistols the brittle air, and the ferns
of the lost world
unfurl and crusten over the darkening windows.

The opening two lines clearly establish the external perspective. This authoritative comparison of the two wildernesses becomes the interpretative key to the poem; consequently, the poem as a whole suffers. The eye keeps straying from the later stanzas back to the epigrammatic opening to sort the distinctions out. The lynx, cougar and other images are not allowed to stand on their own as poetic creations; we turn to the key, unlock the distinctions between the wildernesses, and gain access to the significance of the images without having to deal with them directly.

The effect of this interpretative imposition is to render the poem static. New awareness does not develop out of it, we are simply given various examples of, and variations on, the initial perception. And because Birney has not explored the ramifications of his perception deeply, being content with his epigrammatic understanding, the examples and variations he produces do not cohere as a unified whole. As in the early versions of “Transcontinental”, the local elements—“slum / and crucifix towns in Holland”, “Columbia's coils”—seem opposed to the universality of the controlling metaphor, and leave the reader unsure of the poet's focus. The second stanza, lines ten to thirteen, is pure cliché, because such an easy target, and relates to the rest of the poem only on a very superficial level of interpretation. If we accept it we do so because the interpretative key of the opening has allowed us to read only the surface of the poem. Further superfluous detail is seen in lines twenty-one and twenty-two: “Beauty goes / or stays and we do not know it.” By this point in the poem this observation should be self-evident. Birney's need to explain indicates that the creative process is not complete. The perception has not yet assumed its own concrete form, and to compensate for this lack Birney imposes meaning in the abstract.

This version has no consistent underlying structural principle. The first stanza is loosely organized around the syntactic pattern “Not … but”, but this pattern does no more than differentiate the wildernesses which we have already had delineated for us in the opening lines. In the third and fourth stanzas this same syntactic construction has assumed a more prominent function; however, the lack of consistency in its use between the first and these stanzas indicates that the conception of an ordering structural principle which has the images oscillating between the wildernesses, is still in its infancy.

The order in which the images are presented reveals that Birney has not thought deeply about his subject. The image of the blood in the third stanza, for example, is quite foreboding in its implications. Relating to how man creates a wilderness within himself, it is more intense, sinister and centrally thematic than the other images in the poem. Yet it is surrounded by cliché in stanza two and, in stanza four, by images which are distinctly less intense. Sandwiched in this manner its power is sapped away by its poetic context.

There seems to have been little effort to realize the potential of sound and rhythm. In stanza three, again, the consonantal stops in “colder” completely counteract the sinister effect of the fricatives in “rushing” and “devious”. Similarly, the superfluous phrase “than any river's” acts as an impediment to the natural rhythmic flow of the conception. On the whole there is a loose and rambling element in both style and theme which suggests quick composition in the heat of an initial perception.

In the second version of “Man Is A Snow”, published in Strait of Anian (1948), Birney has taken a closer look at the poem.


I tell you the wilderness we fell
is nothing to the one we breed.
Not the cougar gliding to myth
from the orange lynx of our flame
and the saw's bright whine,
but the tree resurrected in slum
in rotograved lie
and a nursery of crosses in Europe.
Not the death of the buffalo grass
in the wheat's monotonous flooding
but that we harvest in doubt
and starve in the hour of hoarding.
Not the rivers we foul but our blood
rushing more devious and colder.
Beauty goes
or stays and we do not know it.
Man is a snow
that cracks the trees' red arches.
Man is a snow that winters
his own heart's cabin
where the frosted nail shrinks in the board
and pistols the brittle air
while the ferns of the lost world unfurling
crusten the useless windows.

In this version there is a distinctive clash between the external and internal perspectives. The interpretative key has been maintained, but here it is set off as an opening couplet. This positioning reinforces the epigrammatic nature of the perception and increases the amount of attention we give it. Consequently, we are more inclined to skim the surface of the rest of the poem. This is unfortunate because Birney has given substantially more thought to the next three stanzas, lines three to fourteen.

In these stanzas the syntactic construction “Not … but”, used inconsistently earlier, becomes a regularized structural principle which orders the lines by oscillating between images of the wilderness we destroy and the one we create. This syntactic oscillation is reinforced by the primarily trimeter lines which give an equal rhythmic weight to either wilderness. In addition, the images themselves follow the regular, oscillating pattern. Whereas, in version one, Birney pushed his meaning by presenting more images of the wilderness we create (the cliché second verse for instance), in this version both wildernesses get equal imagistic representation.

This regularized balancing of opposed elements through syntax, rhythm and image might seem to invite monotony. Birney overcomes this potential problem by gradually decreasing the distance between the wildernesses at the same time as he broadens the thematic scope of the images referring to the wilderness we create. In stanza two (lines three to eight) each wilderness is given three lines, two of which are modifiers serving to maintain a certain distance between the wildernesses. Lines four and five modify line three, and lines seven and eight modify line six. The mechanistically sinister image of the “rotograved lie” has been placed alone in a dimeter line for increased effect. The fine image of the “nursery of crosses” in line eight carries a greater poetic immediacy then the documentary “crucifix towns in Holland” from version one. Birney has expanded the locale from Holland to “Europe”, aligning his observations on war more closely with the universal metaphor of the title.

In stanza three (lines nine to twelve) only two lines are given to each wilderness and there is only one modifying line for each; line ten modifies line nine and twelve modifies eleven. The distance between the wildernesses has been diminished for a reason. In section two Birney recorded his observations on war, on how man creates a wilderness in the most direct fashion. In section three, in the images of starving and hoarding, he shows us how man creates a wilderness in a more devious manner because at a remove from direct contact. The closer proximity of the wildernesses serves to supply something of this lost contact.

In the fourth stanza there is no modification, the wildernesses meet directly: “Not the rivers we foul but our blood”. From observing the wilderness that man creates externally Birney turns to that which we create internally: that barren wilderness in our soul which breeds the barren external environment, observed earlier, in which we live. The modification for the image of the blood comes in line fourteen: “rushing more devious and colder.” This line has been improved by the dropping of the superfluous phrase “than any river's”, but the sinister effect is still undermined by having “colder” abruptly terminate the flow of the image.

The progressive sharpening of perception and heightening of tension which these sections display is the result of Birney's holding his propensity for rhetoric in check and allowing the potentials of structure, rhythm and image to be realized. Ironically enough, however, the reader who has been lulled into an easy perusal of the poem by the opening couplet may not do justice to this skillful development and may, consequently, only skim an epigrammatic meaning from the sinister central couplet.

In the next stanza (lines fifteen to eighteen) overt rhetoric returns. The abstraction about beauty has been retained from version one and placed beside the poem's first statement that “man is a snow”. By placing the abstraction and image together in a separate stanza Birney ensures that we recognize the significance of his theme. Yet, as I indicated earlier, the abstraction should be self-evident by this time in the poem, and, consequently, we feel the meaning is being forced at us in an unnecessarily overt manner.

Birney attempts to clinch his points by repeating “Man is a snow” in the opening line of the final stanza. The repetition appears gratuitous and annoying after the ponderous statement of theme in stanza five. The rest of the stanza, until the last line, is an improvement over the last version. The line lengths do not seem arbitrary but reflect more natural segments of thought. There is also an increased awareness of sound, as the internal rhyming of “ferns” and “unfurling” in line twenty-three indicates. These effects, skillful as they may be, are obscured by the rhetorical intrusion of the word “useless” in the final line. If it is not apparent to us by this time that the windows are useless I doubt we will get the point no matter how overt Birney becomes. The intrusion of the word at this point serves only to force an external perspective on us again. Birney is still not confident that the poem's images and internal structure can convey the theme; he has to point.

It is with the third version, published in Outposts, (Summer, 1948), that Birney finally allows the poem its head.


Not the cougar leaping to myth
from the orange lynx of our flame
not the timber swooning to death
in the shock of the saw's bright whine
but the rotograved lie
the pine resurrected in slum
and a nursery of crosses in Europe.
Not the death of the prairie grass
in the wheat's monotonous flooding
but the harvest mildewed with doubt
and the starved in the hour of hoarding
not the rivers we foul but our blood
o cold and more devious rushing.
Man is a snow that cracks
the trees' red resinous arches
that winters his cabined heart
till the chilled nail shrinks in the wall
and pistols the brittle air
till frost like ferns of the world that is lost
unfurls on the darkening windows.

Virtually all obtrusive elements have been pruned away from this version. Birney has enough confidence in his images to allow them to stand on their own without the help of the opening interpretative couplet. A greater awareness of the persuasive power of rhythm, metre and sound is readily apparent in the first stanza. The “Not … but” structure is maintained, but this time we need to read through two negatives before we find the assertion. The repetition of the negatives heightens our suspense slightly, but, at the same time, the parallel images of “cougar leaping” and “timber swooning”, and the regular trimeter rhythm of the first four lines, tend to lull us off guard. We are snapped back to attention by the only dimeter line in the poem—“but the rotograved lie”.12 The shortness of the line, the consonantal stops, and the mechanically precise image with its connotations of the grave, follow the pivotal “but” far more effectively than “the tree resurrected in slum” which accompanied it in the last version. The image of the “rotograved lie”, combined with the image of the “nursery of crosses” in line seven, enacts the concept of falsehood. We mechanically mass produce death but gloss the issue. As Robillard says, “the pun on ‘nursery’ of crosses … suggests the domestication, the euphemistic evasion, of death.”13 Birney creates the effect poetically, the meaning evolving from the experience which is the poem, and not being imposed from outside.

The only element which mars this stanza is the inclusion of the sixth line—“the pine resurrected in slum”. Although a fine image in its own right, it is not strong enough for the context it has been placed in. It appears superfluous between the two intense images just discussed and, consequently, weakens them.

The second stanza combines the third and fourth stanzas of version two. The sinister image of the blood was made very powerful in the second version by being separated off as a couplet, but it also ran the risk of receiving only an epigrammatic reading. By combining it with the image which precedes it, Birney ensures that it will be seen as part of a poetic complex and not as an extractable adage. Another effect of this act of combination is that the regular trimeter rhythm of the stanza carries us directly into the sinister image of the river of blood in a manner which reflects the devious workings of that element. This concern for the melding of sound and sense is clear in the final line of the stanza: “o cold and more devious rushing.” Certainly this is an advance on its counterpart in the earlier version: “rushing more devious and colder.”

The first line of the final stanza breaks the syntactic “Not … but” pattern and makes the poem's first categorical statement: “Man is a snow …”. This statement acts to unify into a coherent whole our varied response to the images preceding it. In the previous version Birney needed to guarantee that we got his message by inserting rhetorical abstraction prior to the last stanza; here the observation that “Man is a snow …” rises out of the poem by a logic of association, being the result of a cumulative build-up of imagery, symbol and syntactic structure.

Man keeps his heart in perpetual winter, freezing to death the life around him as well as his own. The final lines carry a poignancy which version two attempted but did not achieve: “till frost like ferns of the world that is lost / unfurls on the darkening windows.” The chiasmus in the first of these lines—internal rhyming of “frost” and “lost” combined with the assonance in “ferns” and “world”—tends to slow the reader down, make him ponder. The effect is reinforced by the line length. This line is the only tetrameter in the poem and contrasts with the only dimeter line—“but the rotograved lie”. The dimeter effectively emphasizes the mechanical wilderness man creates, while the tetrameter is effective in nostalgically evoking the idyllic “world that is lost”. The last line dramatizes this loss by combining the alliteration and assonance of the previous line in its first word, “unfurls”, and then juxtaposing this word with “the darkening windows.” This phrase breaks the flow of alliteration and assonance as it breaks the line of sight. The total effect is very powerful. There is no need for the word “useless”, used in version two. That simply pushed the poetic effect into blatant rhetoric and undermined any attempt at poignancy being made.

Although the text of the third version is substantially that of the final one, two significant revisions were still to be made. In 1958 Ralph Gustafson published the poem in The Penguin Book of Canadian Verse. There the final line of the first stanza reads, “and a nursery of crosses abroad”. Birney has again broadened the perspective, bringing it more clearly in line with the universal metaphor of the title. The second significant change appeared when the poem was published in Selected Poems 1940-1966. In this, the final version, the line “the pine resurrected in slum” has been dropped. Consequently the powerful images, “the rotograved lie” and “a nursery of crosses”, are brought into a closer proximity.

These small but significant changes only reinforce what I have been arguing throughout: the movement of the revisions is generally toward letting the perception develop out of the poetic experience, rather than imposing a specific interpretation on that experience. This parallels how meaning is arrived at in the experience of life, by trial and error, revising existing perspectives as new experience is felt. As the experience of life offers many and varied possibilities, so Birney's poetry, as it grows to reflect experience, becomes increasingly more open-ended and able to accommodate a wider range of thought and emotion. Birney's willingness to revise, like Yeats's, is indicative of a dynamic personality and vital creative process.


  1. “Turning New Leaves” in Earle Birney, Bruce Nesbitt ed. (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1974), p. 166.

  2. Preface to Selected Poems 1940-1966 (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1966) p. ix.

  3. The copyright for all versions of these poems reprinted in this article remains with the author.

  4. The Creative Writer (Toronto: C.B.C., 1966), p. 28.

  5. Ibid., p. 29.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Ibid., p. 33.

  8. Earle Birney (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1971), pp. 57-58.

  9. In a letter to me dated August 1980, Birney says this version was submitted in October 1959.

  10. According to the same letter from Birney (see note nine), the Transatlantic Review version was accepted in April 1966, just prior to the appearance, one month later, of the Selected Poems version. In the version in Selected Poems Birney replaced all commas with spaces. This was part of a general move on his part to heighten the element of ambiguity in his poetry by discarding unnecessary punctuation. “Man Is A Snow” underwent the same revision at this time. Whether the change adds anything significant to the poems is debatable; it certainly does not detract from them.

  11. “Earle Birney: Poet” in Earle Birney, Bruce Nesbitt ed., p. 111.

  12. I read this line as anapestic dimeter which, in my opinion, gives the most forceful interpretation of the image. The line could conceivably be read as a trimeter made up of two trochees and an iamb but this seems genuinely weaker.

  13. Robillard, Earle Birney, p. 38.

George Woodcock (essay date spring 1981)

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SOURCE: Woodcock, George. “The Wanderer: Notes on Earle Birney.” Essays on Canadian Writing, no. 21 (spring 1981): 85-103.

[In the following essay, Woodcock examines parallels between Birney's travel-themed poetry and the journey themes found in the Old English poems “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer.”]

There is a sense in which the Old English poets set a pattern for the use of the journey in English literature. In poems like The Wanderer and The Seafarer, they established not merely the sense of earthly journeying as a metaphor for the inner journey “down to Gehenna or up to the throne,” as Kipling put it, but also what we now tend to see as the romantic linking of scenes of earthly desolation with the condition of man considered merely as a being of earth. I am not suggesting that these early English poets actually invented either of these connections between the mundane and the spiritual, for they exist in the Odyssey and in the Mahabharata, in Exodus and even in the Epic of Gilgamesh that antedates all these works; almost certainly the first tales of wanderings whose real goal was more than a worldly destination must have been the oral epics and tales of nomadic and preliterate peoples to whom the settled existence was unknown and all life was in literal as well as figurative ways a journey.

The journey, with its dual intent and double destination, the journey that tests and initiates, has remained a constant of European literature even down to the present age of futuristic fantasies like those of Ursula Le Guin, but in its recurrent manifestations it has tended to relate closely in content to the life of its special time, even when formal elements have maintained a considerable constancy despite the lack of evident continuity in traditions. There is little likelihood that the scops who composed The Seafarer and The Wanderer knew of the Odyssey and certainly they were ignorant of the Indian and Babylonian epics I have mentioned; at most they knew Exodus, but the life of a desert wanderer was foreign to them, and so they developed themes that seem to echo late Judaic and early Christian concepts in the context of a wandering life proper to Anglo-Saxon times, the life of perilous sea voyages and of unstable realms.

We can imagine ourselves back among the warring kinglets and thanes of the Heptarchy when the author of The Wanderer tells how,

… in many a spot through this middle earth
the wind-blown walls stand waste, befrosted,
the abodes of men lie buried in snow,
the wine-halls are dust in the wind, the rulers
dead, stripped of glee. …

Similarly, in The Seafarer, the chances of the seaman's life are contrasted with the delusive certainties of the complacent landsman's life, the life of unawareness:

          … this life that is dead
in a land that passes; I believe no whit
that earthly weal is everlasting.

But the seafarer, like the wanderer, is saved from earthly weal precisely by

          … the mood that drives my soul
to fare from home, that, far away,
I may find the stead where strangers dwell.

And in that faring, the man who journeys finds a liberty even more of the spirit than of the flesh and the mind.

So, now, my soul soars from my bosom,
the mood of my mind moves with the sea-flood,
over the home of the whale, high flies and wide
to the ends of the earth; after, back to me
comes the lonely flier, lustful and greedy,
whets me to the whale-way, whelms me with his bidding
over deep waters. Dearer, then, to me
the boons of the Lord. …(1)

From the life of toil and privation and closeness to peril which the seaman endures, rather than from the illusory ease of the landsman, comes “the boon of the Lord,” and so the hard voyage leads to a self-discovery that is a drowning of worldly pretensions in the harbour of enlightenment.

While there is not a continuing link between English literature and that of the ancient world, except for Jewish antiquity, there is a succession from Old English poetry that is thematic even more than formal; and elements which we find in the poetry of the Anglo-Saxon era tend to re-emerge with a special emphasis when modern or recent experience in some way resembles that of pre-Norman England, so that it is not surprising to find that a Canadian poet of our time, like Earle Birney, brought up in a pioneering society on the edge of wilderness, where existence was at times perilous and where the heroic view of life could still be sustained, should have been attracted to Old English poetry.

Not only has Birney freely parodied that poetry in a number of celebrated exercises, like “Anglo-Saxon Street” and “Mappemounde,” which look and sound as like the original as anything can in modern English. Not only does he like to call himself a scop and his poems makings, and insist on the importance of poetry being delivered orally and publicly as well as on the printed page, showing in these ways a desire to recreate the situation of earlier periods, when poetry did not seem, as it does now, an activity detached from the lives and preoccupations of common, sensual, active men. He also exemplifies in his life, and in the poetry that has emerged from the contemplation of his experiences, the theme of wandering that was so important to English bards at the crucial period when oral poetry was being wedded to writing. And wandering, in Birney's case, can be interpreted not merely as the driving desire to encounter strange landfalls and cultures, which has given us poems from four continents and many countries, but also as the equally driving urge to experiment in the forms of verse and the manipulation of the language and even of non-linguistic devices in the service of poetry. That the experiments have not been as productive as the travels does not diminish their relation to the persona of Birney the Wanderer.

Perhaps no poem by Birney has been more explicitly addressed to the pattern of wandering than “Mappemounde,” which he wrote in 1945, returning by hospital ship from the wars. Evoking “the wanderer's pledges,” it presents the sea as a great metaphor for time, at whose bounds “the redeless … / topple in maelstrom tread back never.” Here the place that is wandered is given its actual as well as its figurative significance—“Adread in that mere we drift to map's end”2—as Birney physically moves across the map of the Atlantic while he evokes the figures representing human destiny. “Mappemounde” belongs to a group of poems in which the focus is really on earth itself, on place, considered not as static setting but as dynamic environment alive with natural and cosmic forces, in which the wanderer becomes the observing peripatetic philosopher rather than—as in most of Birney's best wandering poems—the traveller intent on the meaningful human contact or the episode potent with historic implication.

Perhaps the two most striking poems which exemplify this facet of Birney's vision are his remarkable meditation in verse, “November Walk near False Creek Mouth,” which was written in 1961-63 and is his longest poem, and the later “Wind through St. John's,” written in 1977. Both are set in Canadian cities (cities of the eastern and western extremities), and while, like all but the most intimately erotic of Birney's verse, they are sensitive to the sound of history, it is the history seen in the wider perspective that comes when one is so deeply involved in a country's pattern of existence that one can take particular destinies for granted and look to the general condition, the macrocosm.

Very few of Birney's poems of foreign travel achieve that kind of sweep. Perhaps “Machu Picchu” (1962) is the most notable among them. In this poem of a Peruvian day, Birney is removed from the temptation to particularize human situations because he is in a city whose last human inhabitants died four centuries and more ago, and he can see the Inca ruins on their great mountain as a paradigm of the universals of inevitable death and stubborn life, of the time that already in “Mappemounde” had been seen as hemming “all hearts' landtrace” (I, 92).

Upwards and bright with birds and orchids
the undiscouraged forest reaches
clawing over the great cliffs
at the lowest rockstep
and the tidied fruitless marketplace
By grain                    clod                    stone
the architrave crumbles                    and the hill
The corn terrace sifts to the Urubamba
to the Amazon                    joins the attrition
of continents perishing into the sea
Stripped tomb and town of triumph
sooner or later you will finish dying
                    like all of us
                                                  Till then
it is good and beautiful to see you stare
out of your green humped cumulus
of mountains and the human mist                    you
and Hiram Bingham and the high Incas
obstinately into your Sun

(II, 76-77)

In “November Walk near False Creek Mouth,” Birney copiously uses the image, which occurs in others of his British Columbia poems, of the Canadian West Coast as the end of land, the extremity of wandering in the face of the great ocean that comes to symbolize something very close to Sartre's néant, to Hemingway's nada, the great luminous void into which all our thoughts and longings are absorbed. The poet walks at sunset, and it is the setting of a historic as well as a cosmic sun that occupies his mind as it flashes back over the old English of Saxon days and their rise to imperial power followed by their decline into faded impotence:

I walk as the earth turns
from its burning father
here on this lowest edge of mortal city
where windows flare on faded flats
and the barren end of the ancient English
          who tippled mead in Alfred's hall
          and took tiffin in lost Lahore
drink now their fouroclock chainstore tea
sighing like old pines as the wind turns

(II, 43)

By the end of “November Walk,” however, we have moved with the poet's eye through all the changing scene as he walks on the beaches among human beings on their small errands, observing the burning heavens and the descent of darkness over the earth, and realizes that all can be seen by man only through the darkling glass of the human condition:

          Higher than clouds and strata of jetstreams
          the air-roads wait the two-way traffic
          And beyond?                    The desert planets
          What else?                    a galaxy-full perhaps
          of suns and penthouses waiting
          But still on the highest shelf of ever
          washed by the curve of timeless returnings
          lies the unreached unreachable nothing
          whose winds wash down to the human shores
          and slip                    shoving
into each thought nudging my footsteps now
as I turn to my brief night's ledge
in the last of warmth
and the fading of brightness
on the sliding edge of the beating sea

(II, 51)

“The Wind through St. John's” is a belated companion piece to “November Walk.” A wind that has blown over every voyager since fishermen first came to the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, and so suggests the slight importance of human history in the patterns of earthly time, becomes also a world-surrounding gale that echoes the cosmic rhythms which make even earth's geography seem small:

Beyond Novaya Zembla
beyond the packice of the Leptev Sea
the Wind will sweep
as it swept over Bering's bones on Wrangel
and skimmed the polar ice to Amundsen's Gulf
                    polishing Hearne's name on a Coppermine rock
and come again declaiming through St. John's town
saying nothing
saying only that air and earth and sea will be one
and whirl in the Sun
within the reeling Circle(3)

There is of course another aspect to poems like “November Walk” and “The Wind through St. John's” within the Birney canon. They punctuate the theme of wandering by inversion. Birney the traveller may have journeyed to St. John's, but in the poem it is the wind that journeys, and he, the observer, remains at the still point within “the reeling Circle.”

In lesser degrees, this kind of dialectical relationship between the land and the poet appears in many other of Birney's poems, but a more significant duality, I suggest, emerges in the constant interplay between Canada and abroad, which is clearly emphasized in the arrangement of Collected Poems on explicitly geographical lines. There are thirteen sections, covering various periods which, because of the sorting by place, often overlap in time. Four of the sections are entitled “Canada” and one “U.S.A.”; there are sections for Europe, Asia, North Pacific, South Pacific, Mexico, South America and the Caribbean, Australia and New Zealand. The thirteenth section is entitled “War” and dated 1938-1947; since it spans Canada and Europe and the seas between, it also can be regarded as defined by geography as well as by history.

I think it was Bruce Nesbitt who once said that Canada has been Birney's Ithaca, and certainly it has been the fixed pole of his journeying, and also the setting of the first poems that showed the sense of the subtle intermingling of place and person that is so characteristic of Birney at his best. John Sutherland remarked long ago, when David and Other Poems first appeared in 1942, that “of all our young modernist poets he is the only one who has made consistent use of a Canadian landscape,” and if we are to take Birney's own datings, he was a landscapist from the start, since the earliest piece in Collected Poems is a revised version of a poem about a crow on a broken bull-pine, called “Kootenay Still-Life” and written in its first version when Birney was fifteen, and the next is a kind of genre-and-landscape poem written five years later and entitled “Old West Vancouver Ferry.”

It was largely because he put the mountains of British Columbia into pictorial and effective verse in poems like “David” and “Conrad Kain” that Birney earned his first repute as a poet, with critics as various as Northrop Frye and A. G. Bailey remarking on the strength his metaphors seemed to have attained from the land he described, and on the skill with which, as E. J. Pratt pointed out, “the science of mountain climbing is … in detail and in principle made subject to the art of poetry.” Others of Birney's Canadian poems were, of course, far wider in scope, endeavouring with marked success, in examples like “Transcontinental” and “North Star West,” to express what Birney called, in the latter poem's final lines:

the welling and wildness of Canada                    the fling of a nation …

(I, 159)

Yet it is to the mountain poems I have mentioned, and to others like “Climbers” and “Biography” and “Takkakkaw Falls” that one turns to get Birney's sense of the real grit and grain of Canada, and to understand the original impulses behind his wandering: the sense of mingled tragedy and achievement—so well exemplified in “David”—that he brought from his early mountain journeying, and the feeling of something even deeper that he took to it out of his foothills childhood, expressed perhaps best of all in a couple of stanzas of “Conrad Kain,” a poem about an Austrian mountain guide transplanted to the Rockies, that with very little change might be applied to the poet himself:

At dawn he led them foot-torn and dazed
over the last glittering glacier
through the lowest tumble of rocks
to the blessed lake and the firm trail
flattening to camp, to sleep                    and to fame
enduring in all who adventure in mountains
—back from the first manning of Robson.
Some think such victories are virtueless.
As empty perhaps as Polar voyagings,
or the wreaths of the runners in Pindar?
He climbed, as another would read,
because his mind was incurably curious,
his body was clamped in the follies of boys
and he was bred to the game.

(I, 120)

The poet and the mountaineer—the affinity is clearly defined when we are told that Kain climbed “as another would read.” The fame of the poet is as little in accordance with contemporary standards of achievement as that of mountaineers or “the runners in Pindar” (again a poetic link). And the poet's mind, as Birney's travels and his writings consistently manifest, has been “incurably curious.” This poet certainly seems to have been “bred to the game,” if one accepts that the earliest of his Collected Poems was first drafted when he was fifteen, while the line—“his body was clamped in the follies of boys”—takes on a strange premonitory significance when one reads it at the same time as “fall by Fury” (1977), the late poem in which Birney describes the fall from a beech tree, when he was more than seventy, that severely injured him. Indeed, Birney records the same kind of lifelong passion he attributed to Kain as he describes himself clambering upward through the branches.

Each grasp tugged at the old zest
for a climb:                    the rock-fort a year back
in Sri Lanka                    and before                    in my sixties
up the yellow spines of the Olgas …
at fifty-eight in cloud on the ribs
of Huayna Picchu … at thirty
inching down chalk on Lulworth cliffs
… twenty-one and over the icy necks
of the Garibaldis … and before that
the mountains of youth … Temple … Edith
all the climbings made in joy of the sport
and never with hurt
as now to the topmost vault
of the beechtree's leaves I rose
to the flooding memories of childhood
perched in my first treehouse
safe in its green womb.

(FF, pp. 12-13)

Poetically, Birney's world of journeying can be divided into three zones. There is Canada, loved physically and as the scene of the basic experiences of childhood and youth, yet—without being hated—always subject to scolding for its failure to live up to the demands of the poet's love.

At the other end, there is the world of Asia, of Mexico and of South America, encountered between 1955 and 1963, which in the view of most astute readers produced the best of all Birney's poems and, revealing for the first time the wideness of his sympathies and perceptions, justified Milton Wilson's description of him as “a very local and a very global poet.” These are the poems of dramatic meeting, in which Birney's encounters with a strange world and its inhabitants can be inverted into pungent comments on the wandering poet and the world from which he comes.

In between these two extreme zones of the familiar and the wholly exotic, there are the regions which have a deceptive semblance of familiarity, like the United States and Australia, and even the islands of the Caribbean, so that the poet is speaking the same language, yet suddenly realizes that the varying ways in which that language is used in fact reveal disconcerting differences of background and attitude. These are the poems in which Birney is most likely to turn to satire, and often, through attempting to get the sound of strange accents, he moves a long way in the direction of verbal experimentation.

Birney's first travels beyond Canada took him to the United States as a student and a young teacher in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and as a soldier to Europe in the 1940s. These travels provide the basic material for his two works of prose fiction, Turvey and Down the Long Table, each of which can be related to a cluster of his poems written at the time to which the novel refers. Turvey is a comic account of the absurdities of war, in much the vein of The Good Soldier Schweik, while Down the Long Table is a serious socio-historical novel in which Birney attempts to recreate the motives of political acts in the 1930s that lead the hero, Gordon Saunders, to stand in the 1950s before the table of a McCarthyite committee investigating subversives. But both are picaresque novels, constructed on chains of space as well as time, and both, though their central characters are imagined, are based on the experiences of their wandering creator. Birney has never been a very inventive writer in a fictional way, and his novels depend as much as his poems on the transmutation of personal experiences and observations.

In my view—though not in Birney's—the transmutation has been more successful in the poetry than in the fiction. Turvey is the amusing jeu d' esprit of a poet, effectively satirical of the follies of men engaged in war, and essentially comic in its re-establishment of natural justice when Turvey Triumphant in the end becomes the personification of Man Victorious over the negative forces of modern society. Turvey is in many ways a very Canadian book, since it incorporates a great variety of Canadian types representing different regions and ways of life and talking in a hilarious mosaic of dialects; undoubtedly the cumbersome operation of the Canadian army as Birney portrays it can be taken as a criticism of the Canadian nation, which, as he indicates repeatedly in his poems, then seemed to him “dead-set in adolescence,” lacking in a real will of its own to support its notions of independence. But there is another aspect of Turvey, for its action overflows into a world both geographically wider and historically deeper, as Turvey is taken to England, proceeds via various military misunderstandings to Belgium and Holland, becomes involved in black-marketeering rings, and gets one brief and inactive glimpse of the front line, which quickly recedes as he is funnelled back to England and Canada and final defiant demobilization. It is a wandering novel, and, as in all picaresques, the constantly changing human relationships are shallowly sketched and there is no real development of character; Turvey does not grow mentally through experience; he merely becomes more knowing.

Down the Long Table is a less uniformly successful book than Turvey, perhaps because it makes too little use of Birney's considerable comic talents; perhaps it must be regarded as an essentially pathetic book, stressing the irony that, long before reaching the investigator's table, Gordon was bitterly disillusioned with the left-wing activism that now returns to haunt him. The novel's main virtue lies in the vividness with which it tells of life among the warring Marxist sects of the 1930s. The real movement of Down the Long Table is—again—that of geographical wandering. It begins in a Utah college, continues in Toronto, takes Saunders bumming across Canada by freight train, immerses him in the varied and often very funny radical world of Vancouver, and—all passion spent—sends him full circle back to Utah, where he becomes a respectable academic, never anticipating that his past will one day explode into his present as old associates turn informers and denounce him to the witch-hunters. Until Birney publishes his autobiography we shall not know how closely Gordon's experiences in fact parallel those of his creator, who himself taught in Utah and Toronto and was a Trotskyite organizer during the years of the Depression.

There is a group of poems that, in the case of each of Birney's novels, reflects on the same area of experience. From the locales in which Turvey endured the manifestations of military madness—a flame-throwing unit, a military hospital, a hospital ship—Birney wrote poems, but the most striking of all these links is that between Chapter xvii of Turvey, and the poem, “The Road to Nijmegen,” written out of immediate experience four years before the novel gave its prose account of the journey to Nijmegen—one of the few occasions when the normally irrepressible Turvey “could not fall into gaiety.”4 In this chapter, Turvey recedes uncharacteristically from the foreground, and it is Birney's own feelings that take over in the page or two of sober description of the Dutch people who have somehow survived the Nazi occupation. The novel describes the same perceptions as the poem, but they are situated in different contexts, since in Turvey they must be fitted in with the physical details of journeying, whereas in the poem they are framed by the poet's thoughts of his distant beloved, and human love is balanced against human misery in this most moving of all Birney's early poems. He describes with laconic starkness the graves with billy-tin epitaphs, the old men cutting chips from ruined stumps for firewood, the women riding like ships at sea on bare-rimmed bicycles,

and the children
groping in gravel for knobs of coal
or clustered like wintered flies
at the back of messhuts
their legs standing like dead stems out of their clogs

But then his mind turns, and

Over the clank of the jeep
your quick grave laughter
outrising at last the rockets
brought me what spells I repeat
as I travel this road
that arrives at no future
and what creed I can bring
to our daily crimes
to this guilt
in the griefs of the old
and the graves of the young

(I, 87)

“The Road to Nijmegen” operates with a device that occurs time and again in the impressive Asian and Latin American poems of later years; the poet recording what he sees but also present in the poem, sometimes as the reflective observer, but equally often as an actor, or perhaps rather a person whose alien presence provokes action in others. “The Bear on the Delhi Road” is an example of the first, and “Bangkok Boy” and “Cartagena de Indias” are differing examples of the second.

“The Bear on the Delhi Road” is really a traveller's observation, an incident on a drive to Kashmir when the poet sees two men by the roadside training a bear they have captured in the Himalayas and are bringing down to Delhi as a dancing beast, training him on the way. As Birney sees it, the task the men have set themselves is that of breaking the trance of animal living (which is reality) and substituting for it the trance of human living (which is myth). And so in the poem the tamers appear not as cruel taskmasters, but as men who, in the process of ensuring their own living, transform without joy and with unpredictable consequences the natural order:

It is no more joyous for them
in this hot dust to prance
out of reach of the praying claws
sharpened to paw for ants
in the shadows of deodars
It is not easy to free
myth from reality
or rear this fellow up
to lurch                    lurch with them
in the tranced dancing of men

(II, 37)

It is almost a model poem of observation and statement, every word carefully picked, each line mosaically adding a particular fact, the feeling evident but controlled, the bear emerging as a kind of animal Samson, a figure at once of pity and pride, and all thrown into relief not by any extravagance of the language, but by the power of the poet to render the strangeness, in the terms of his own experience and his readers' experience, of what he is saying, and to use that strangeness to provoke a sense of universality.

“Bangkok Boy” concerns one of those countless minor encounters that make up the fabric of a wanderer's journeying, yet which sometimes stand out with a preternatural vividness because in some sense or other they provide the clues that offer a meaning to the heterogeneous chaos of most people's travel experiences. The content of the poem is simple enough. Birney—the “… towering strayed / tourist …” (II, 34)—gives a bit of chocolate and a small coin to a naked little Thai boy, and the boy dances in uninhibited delight against the bizarre Bangkok background of clawed-roofed palaces and pagodas covered with broken china and shimmering in the sun, ancient Ramayana frescoes, and modern brothels. The staccato rhythm of the poem with its clipped—often one-syllable—lines beats out the sense of excitement in the child's dance:

Scamper little Thai
hot on those hot stones
this is forever O for
all gods' sakes
beat out
that first
cry of joy
under the sun!

But that cry of joy rings out against the background of Asian misery in which the child, if he survives, will be submerged:

before in the high world's
you are caught
slid lethewards
on choleric canals
to where the poles of klongs
and rows of paddyfields
are shaped to bend
small leaping backs
and the flat bellies
of impets
are rounded with beriberi

(II, 36)

Joy is in the instant and must be thus experienced; time leads only to misery and death, life's inevitable ends. And the message is given its peculiar intensity by the vividness with which the strange physical setting of it all is delineated, and also by a form that suggests we read the poem—aloud or in the mind's ear—at a rapid and percussive dance pace.

“Cartagena de Indias, 1962” is a much more complex poem—as well as much longer—than either “The Bear on the Delhi Road” or “Bangkok Boy.” In a series of encounters, the poet is pestered and tricked as he walks through the decaying old Spanish city, and he realizes how different a world is his from this poverty among the fragments of splendour, and how difficult that makes any contact on a level beyond the pettily commercial:

Somewhere there must be another bridge
from my stupid wish
to their human acceptance
but what can I offer—
my tongue half-locked in the cell
of its language—other than pesos
          to these old crones of thirty
          whose young sink in pellagra
          as I clump unmaimed
          in the bright shoes
          that keep me from hookworm
          lockjaw and snakebite

(II, 69)

Quite unexpectedly he finds that the missing bridge is one of those epiphanies which at times bring wanderers back to themselves and make the strange world comprehensible in terms of their own inner vision. He comes upon a grotesque monument—a massive concrete representation, ten feet long, of a pair of worn shoes, dedicated to a certain Luis Lopez. At the only bookseller's shop, he learns that Lopez was the local poet who wrote a great sonnet about the “rancid disarray” of his city, in which he declared that he loved Cartagena and its people with the “… love a man has / for his old shoes …” (Collected, II, 71), and the citizens remembered him when he died with their bizarre monument. Here, as Birney recognizes, in this extraordinary relationship between a city and its poet, is the bridge that leads him into brotherhood:

Descendants of pirates                    grandees
galleyslaves and cannibals
I love the whole starved cheating
poetry-reading lot of you                    most of all
for throwing me the shoes of deadman Luis
to walk me back into your brotherhood

(II, 72)

One of the features that most distinguishes “Cartagena de Indias” and others of the Asian and Latin American cycles is that Birney is speaking in what one might call the tone of elevated conversation, varying its pace from poem to poem. The very strangeness of the encounters and their settings makes it almost necessary for the narrative to be direct, descriptive, and reflective, and it is notable that rarely in these poems does Birney experiment technically—except to find the linear form most fitting to the particular occasion—or indulge in the tinkerings with language that characterize so much of his other verse. It is true that he will pick up, as in “Sinalóa,” the way a Westernized Mexican speaks English:

Si señor, is halligators here, your guidebook say it,
si, jaguar in the montañas, maybe helephants, quién sabe?
You like, dose palmas in the sunset? Certamente very nice,
it happen each night in the guía tourista,
But who de hell eat jaguar, halligator, you heat em?
Mira my fren, wat dis town need is muy big breakwater—
          I like take hax to dem jeezly palmas.

(II, 19)

But the point here does not really lie in the manipulation of the language; Birney is really presenting what a traveller is likely to hear in Mexico, with humour but without undue exaggeration, getting his effect largely from the irony that he, the traveller with perfect English or something near it, is seeking the past that the Mexican himself rejects in favour of the culture whose language he can only imperfectly speak. Once again, there is an encounter which provides its poetic comment on two worlds. Only the very occasional poem of these exotic lands is written in clearly experimental form; one is “Nayarit,” where Birney unites the poetic with the pictorial by arranging the type on the page in such a way that as we read we seem to journey in sloping lines among the hills of this wild country, up and down the sides of its pyramids, beside the verticals of the barrancas.

Since they are well known to his readers, there is no need to discuss in detail the range of Birney's experiments in the sounds and looks of poems, which are often highly ingenious, but which should perhaps be classed as “entertainments” rather than as “poems” to distinguish them from works of the calibre of “David” and “November Walk” and “Cartagena de Indias,” which have no need of whimsical adornments to wreak their profound effects. At the same time, when we accept the wanderer as one of Birney's chief poetic personae, we have to recognize that the restlessness which has kept him journeying over the earth has also led him to an equally restless search for new forms.

It is a search that has been sustained by Birney's professional concern with language, and by his interest in the linguistic experiments of others. At the beginning, Birney already marked himself off from the poets of his time by utilizing his academic readings in Old English and Middle English, and his adoptions of Anglo-Saxon alliterations and kennings were sometimes subtle and sometimes not, as in “War Winters” (1941):

proud Bessemer                    peltwarmer beauty
these winters yoke us                    We scan sky for you
The dun droppings blur                    we drown in snow
Is this tarnished chimneyplug                    in a tenantless room
this sucked wafer                    white simpleton

(I, 72-73)

The wordplay of Finnegans Wake was an almost equally early influence, if we are to accept Birney's claim that “Mammorial Stunzas for Aimee Simple McFarcin” was first drafted in 1931. The Surrealist collage finds its way rather belatedly into Birney's poetic practice in the 1960s, with patterns of found newspaper headings and snippets of news; he had already used the same device fictionally in Down the Long Table, though perhaps with a more documentary purpose, since the collages which have appeared more recently among his poems appear to be absurdist in intent, as indeed do most of Birney's “entertainments,” such as the arrangements of type with their hints of remote connotations, and the elegant little line drawings, each making its tenuous and often sentimental poetic point.

In his most recent experiments Birney seems to have been running beside the poets who were young a decade ago, and who rediscovered for themselves a great deal that Dada and Surrealism had already developed forty years before. Perhaps the major irony has been to watch Birney, who missed the influence of such movements when he was young, falling under their revived influence in his sixties and seventies.

The most ambitious of Birney's experiments are really those poems about the mid-worlds of the United States and Australia, not strange enough to be exotic yet jarringly alien even in their familiarity. Poems about Americans of the 1950s and early 1960s, like “Appeal to a Lady with a Diaper” (written in 1956 and updated in 1971) and “Billboards Build Freedom of Choice” mingle the words used by advertisers with the substandard speech of the people to whom the advertisers appeal in a powerfully grotesque and satirical presentation of a mindless attitude to life that, by representing it in this way, Birney makes as alien as any exotic land: more alien, in fact, since here there is no bridge of brotherhood to link us to it.

Perhaps, indeed, it is because there is no resolution, either comic or tragic, that poems like “Appeal to a Lady” and “Billboards” succeed eminently in their immediate effect yet remain unmemorable. One is struck by the parodic truth of lines like

yegotta choose fella yegotta
choose between
                              AMERICA and UN—
and brother if you doan pick
you better
git this heap

(I, 55)

But this is not the language of reflection or emotion. We get the point, mentally, but we are not moved, except perhaps to a brief and formal anger. And the same, I think, applies to the poems of Australia, where Birney the wanderer was clearly driven into a frustration, which he transformed into contempt, by the impossibility of finding a bridge, because the differences between the two cultures were so ill-defined, and the people he met seemed always to be retreating behind a screen of caricature familiarity. Hence Birney's trip to Australia produced little better than the heavy humour of “Strine Authors Meet”:

A female macaw beckons me                    the local Edith Sitwell?
          Yet the kin eyejin gander gisses a lecher?
          Jus gonna read pomes
Her bill falls with alarm
          Yer nat gander read peartree? Ow long yer gan an fer?

(II, 110)

Do Australians really speak like this? Or is it deliberately exaggerated linguistic pastiche? My experience of Australians leads me to conclude the latter.

It will be evident that I find the overtly experimental poems the least interesting of Birney's works, though I accept them as products of the restlessness and curiosity that on another level made him the wanderer whose journeyings have inspired his best poems. But this does not mean that the “entertainments” have to be dismissed as irrelevant to Birney's progress as a poet. On the contrary, I think that it is his openness to the new and the unorthodox that has given Birney the freedom to find so felicitously, in his greater poems, the special voice and form appropriate to each situation. The ability to experience and to describe each place in its own individual terms is what distinguishes the good travel book, and Birney has successfully transmuted that usually prose virtue into the inspiring element of an authentic wanderer's poetry as true to its place in history as that of Homer or of Byron or of the anonymous scop who wrote The Seafarer.


  1. Extracts from The Wanderer and The Seafarer, in Kemp Malone, ed. and trans., Ten Old English Poems Put into Modern English Alliterative Verse (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1941), pp. 10-15: The Wanderer, ll. 75-79; The Seafarer, ll. 65-67, 36-38, 58-65.

  2. Earle Birney, “Mappemounde,” in The Collected Poems of Earle Birney, 2 vols. (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1975), I, 92. All further references to this work in two volumes appear in the text.

  3. —————, Fall by Fury & Other Makings (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1978), p. 94. All further references to this work (FF) appear in the text.

  4. —————, Turvey: A Military Picaresque (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1949), p. 228.

Les McLeod (essay date spring 1981)

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SOURCE: McLeod, Les. “Irony and Affirmation in the Poetry of Earle Birney.” Essays on Canadian Writing, no. 21 (spring 1981): 130-57.

[In the following essay, McLeod traces Birney's literary treatment of the conflicting themes of irony and affirmation, starting with an examination of the poet's doctoral dissertation, “Chaucer's Irony.”]


It is the problem of affirmation within the ironic mode which has concerned Earle Birney the poet, as the problem of humanity in an apocalyptic age has concerned Birney the man. Both problems, literary and social, were approached in Birney's doctoral dissertation, “Chaucer's Irony.” Completed in 1936, the dissertation demonstrated a profound understanding of irony, and of its relationship to a writer's society. Birney argued that Chaucer's irony reflected his “ambiguous class position,” between a “responsive interest in the new vigorous world of the bourgeois, and his economic and social need to reconcile that interest with the duties of a courtier.”1 The dissertation was informed by this definition of irony:

… in all uses of the word to-day, there is this unity of meaning: an illusion has been created that a real incongruity or conflict is non-existent, and the illusion has been so shaped that a bystander may, immediately or ultimately, see through it and be thereby surprised into a more vivid awareness of that very conflict.2

The ironist, Birney said,

is a man who chooses, for various reasons, to make a show of concealing his satiric thrusts. … The ironist succeeds, by his indirectness, not so much in softening the blow—often quite the contrary—but in removing himself from clear responsibility for the attack. It follows that … when society is sharply divided against itself, as during the height of the feudal-bourgeois struggle, there is little room for the ironist or even for the satirist as such. But in epochs which lead up to or away from the primary social struggles, epochs of transition in which contradictions are most glaring but not immediately in battle, the ironist has his day.

(“CI,” I, i, 2)

Birney posited the necessity or propriety of irony at the transition stage of a class struggle. He also insisted that “… irony is inescapably a critical emphasis upon disparity and, so, one form of ‘satire’ …” (“CI,” I, i, 31-32). Thus, he implied that commitment and detachment both are necessary to the ironist. And, in poetic practice at least, this resolved any conflict over the moral value of irony as compared to statement.

Whatever the importance of such a conflict for Chaucer the fourteenth-century courtier, it was certainly real for Birney the twentieth-century Marxist organizer and journalist; and real, too, was the felt necessity for the concealment of irony in the face of growing war propaganda.3 “Chaucer's Irony” may be read as Birney's own rationale for irony, for the kind of sophisticated and subtle poetry which he began to publish immediately after presenting his dissertation. Not long thereafter, Birney's active involvement in radical politics declined, and the approach of world war was an important catalyst in this change.4 I infer disillusionment: the loss of that sustaining faith, which any honest radical activist must have, in some sort of millenium-on-earth. And, if this was the case, then the cause of Birney's disillusion was simply the approach of Armageddon, demonstrating on a frightening scale man's inhumanity. The question, perhaps, was not whether millennium, but whether survival.

What Birney perhaps gained from disillusion was the necessary “‘poise’” (“CI,” I, i, 42) for irony, the necessary detachment which allowed him to be artistically committed. Thus was human affirmation hidden in disillusion. Its discovery is a pattern repeated over and over again in Birney's poems, in which affirmation springs, and springs only, from genuine despair of the human condition.

We may say of Birney, as he said of Chaucer, that his age and circumstance combined to produce in him “a permanent dualism” (“CI,” I, v, 62). Affirmation and irony, commitment and detachment, coexist throughout Birney's poetry. His myriad forms, his constant revision, his control of technique, all reflect the conscious craftsman's search for ways to allow their coexistence. This search for form has led Birney away from his early collective and public poetry toward poems more individual and romantic. Within this formal development, however, Birney's ironic, yet affirmative, stance remains constant.


Irony is an important aspect of Birney's earliest poetry. Even “Slug in Woods,” written in 1928 and first published in 1937,5 which is apparently a poem of simple nature description, is ironic in Birney's sense of the term. There is in it a conflict or incongruity which the poem's wit and craft combine to hide and reveal. The dichotomy in “Slug in Woods” is between different scales of time, and finally between time itself (the world of change and death) and the notion of eternity (a world out of time). The poem's first lines,

For eyes he waves greentipped
taut horns of slime                    …

embody an image of seaweed, and introduce an extended and subliminal metaphor of the forest floor as seabed. This metaphor works to at least four ends. Firstly, it distorts perspective so that what is realistically one small patch of woods becomes part of an “illim- / itable seafloor,” part of a macrocosmic as well as a microcosmic world. Secondly, it suggests slow motion, since movement in water is slower than in air. Thirdly, it implies an above-sea perspective, existing in “dappled air,” which is known to the speaker and the reader but not to the slug. Fourthly, it suggests an evolutionary time-scale. In light of Birney's later poems, we must see this bit of forest, through which the slug swims, and which is located near Crescent Beach, as Birney's familiar stage for man: between the evolutionary sea and slime and the high land of consciousness and power,6 here, ironically, the same place.

In the succeeding lines, the poem's time-scale becomes more ambiguous:

                                                            They dipped
hours back                    across a reef
a salmonberry leaf
then strained to grope past fin
of spruce                    …

These “hours” suggest a tiny time-scale opposite the vast evolutionary one. Yet the slug's world, because of his size and speed, is even more infinite than ours. So the poem presents a complicated relativity of time: unfixed to the slug's scale, the human's, or the universe's.

At this point in the poem, its perspective subtly begins to change. At first, the persona of the poem speaks of a particular slug as it moves. Then,

is he
Hours on                    he will resume
his silver scrawl                    …

Meanwhile, the speaker pauses to generalize and predict, his language becomes appropriately more metaphoric, and he visualizes the fate of the slug:

young jay his sudden shark
The wrecks he skirts are dark
and fungussed firlogs                    …

What threatens the slug's eternal, chancy “scrawl” is death. It is the wreck we all try to skirt, but which in fact is our guidepost, is what prevents the relativity of time. Heaven may be foretold by “mounting boles,” but “… isles in dappled air” are “fathoms above his care.”

Birney's definition of irony as indirect satire accounts for the slight tonal variation of the next two lines. The speaker's point of view has become slightly more distant, and there is a distinct sense of looking down on a form of life so lifeless as to be disgusting:

Azygous muted life
himself his viscid wife

The speaker gradually separates himself from his subject and the poem's point of view becomes that of the gods. But, in his dissertation, Birney saw the “irony of fate” as merely a form of dramatic irony, where the gods are the audience whose knowledge is withheld from the character on-stage, that is, mankind (“CI,” I, i, 9). Thus, if the speaker has become a god, the slug represents man. But the poet and the poem's readers are also mere men. So the poem reveals a real incongruity in man's view of himself. The last lines of the poem make it clear, however, that it is the identity, the shared fate of man and slug, which is important. These lines allow relief and realization as they escape from the tight rhymed trimeter couplets, which have slowed the reader's progress throughout, and become full pentameters:

foodward he noses cold beneath his sea
So spends a summer's jasper century

The last line is a new sentence. So it does not refer merely to the slug, but also to the watcher, the speaker, who realizes that his seemingly endless summer is spending too. For man, time is defined by death; evolution from sea to land is relevant only to a time-scale longer than the individual's, and in fact proceeds also by death; life is realized to be as tiny, persistent, beautiful, and oppressive as the atmosphere of this poem suggests. “Slug in Woods” shows the falsity of a detached and godlike view of life. By implication, commitment is also required, and the poem hints that the commitment is bound up with a view of life that encompasses the fact of death.

As T. D. MacLulich has demonstrated, Birney's early and famous poem “David” (I, 107-13) deals with the initiation of its protagonist “into an awareness of death. He has learned that death is not something which can be kept from consciousness but is an unavoidable and even essential part of life.”7 David and Bob, taken together, represent the process of initiation into experience, in which an old self must die and a new self be born. David's false view of man in perfect harmony with nature must be destroyed, and Bob must learn that nature is indifferent, that man is by his own consciousness forever separated from Eden. This is painful and guilty knowledge, but by choosing it, Bob acquiesces in his own humanity, which is potentially spiritual, and rejects as impossible a purely physical existence. The poem's more obvious conflicts—between men and mountains, and over the question of mercy killing—and its deceptively joyful personification of nature, are techniques of ironic masking which cover and yet expose the poem's real conflict.

Another early Birney poem, “Hands” (I, 67-68), begins in the world of guilt and despair in which “David” ended. “Hands” expresses the pain, but also the necessity, of action in the lapsarian world where man is primarily separate from nature. The poem's penultimate line—“We are not of these woods we are not of these woods”—is a chanted lament, but also a ritual exorcism of guilt and a hopeful realization. Exactly because man is not part of the unthinking silent process of nature, he has the power to visualize and, therefore, change his world. This is the hidden affirmation of a poem which otherwise despairs.

In “Vancouver Lights” (I, 71-72), on the other hand, affirmation becomes overt: Birney uses techniques of irony to reject the tragic and express an heroic vision of the potential of man. “Vancouver Lights” rejects the concept of fate and, therefore, posits man as the only god there is. The primary irony of the poem, in Birney's sense of concealed conflict, is discoverable in its last line. “there was light” is from the account of creation in Genesis, from God's word. But, here, the words are placed in the mouth of man and the conclusion is inescapable. Concealed in the poem's apparent conflict between man and the gods is a real conflict within man himself—only discoverable when man realizes he has invented his gods and is himself the ultimate power for good or evil. The poem's basic symbolism—light versus dark (which also echoes the biblical creation myth)—represents a false conflict hiding a real one; the conflict is really within light, within man. Prometheus, too (half-man, half-god, and light-bringer), is here to embody this real conflict.

The persona, atop his mountain above the lights of Vancouver, is placed exactly where the poem's theme suggests he should be: between the finite and the infinite, between light and dark, heaven and earth. In setting up his contrast between the lighted city and the vast darkness of space, Birney dramatizes it. Each force is active: the night “wimples” (which means to fold or rumple or to cover), it “wraps,” and “mounting / sucks.” Light from the city is “throbbing,” it “webs … golden / strands” which “… overleap … vault,” and “climb.” In this way Birney both conceals and reveals the basic unity of light and dark, in order to expose the genuine conflict between varieties of light. His persona, placed between two kinetic and apparently opposing forces, seems to separate them. But, in fact, it is toward him that each must move, because in him is their unity.

As the lights coming up the mountain “falter and halt”—echoing that more cataclysmic halting of light with which the poem deals—the poet skillfully subsumes the activity of his opposing forces in the perspective of time, using the image of a wheel of light to indicate the rolling of the years:

                                                                                                    Across to the firefly
haze of a ship on the gulf's erased horizon
roll the lambent spokes of a lighthouse
Through the feckless years we have come to the time
when to look on this quilt of lamps is a troubling delight

In the second verse-paragraph, the poem moves swiftly to the specific in time and place. But the World War II blackout, which the persona envisions as flooding the world, is also a resumption of the cosmic night which “mounting / suck[ed] at the stars” in the first paragraph. Now, though, there is the crucial difference that this is man's darkness. So there is set up an ironic unity between the darkness man creates and the chaotic darkness of the non-human universe. But a further ironic qualification is added by the phrase “primal ink,” which suggests that, even in creating darkness, man acts out of the impulse to communicate. If “ink” floods all, the inkwell has perhaps been irretrievably overturned, but the roots of darkness and light are again implied to be one.

Verse-paragraph three names the emotion which the “flooding … primal ink” has evoked—terror. At the same time it provides a clue to understanding that fear's meaning:

On this mountain's brutish forehead with terror of space
I stir                    …

The “brutish” mountain seems at first glance to be an obtrusive and rather mundane personification of a mere mountain—mere, that is, in the cosmic perspective of the poem. It strikes a false note; but perhaps it is intended to because the personification of the cosmos is to follow, and we must be made to see this latter personification for what it is—man's device, and an essentially false one. The “terror of space” embodies two fears: the fear of nature and the cosmos as utterly alien and unassimilable, and yet, paradoxically, the fear that nature is not merely indifferent but actively malicious: “pulsing down from beyond and between / the fragile planets.” These fears are related:

how shall we utter our fear that the black Experimentress
will never in the range of her microscope find it?                    …

The terror of indifference and meaninglessness here evokes the desire for an animate universe, for gods who may be malicious but who will at least exist. Personification here is the literary equivalent of man's desire to create gods so he may believe he dwells in a fated and tragic universe. Thus, man avoids the terrible knowledge of humanity's total responsibility for itself, avoids assuming that responsibility, and thus, he is in grave danger of imminent self-destruction.

Richard Robillard has pointed out what he calls the “submerged metaphor of the spider”8 in “Vancouver Lights.” This metaphor primarily represents man's creative power. But there may also be the suggestion that the “webs” of light men “weave … in gossamer” are webs of fate; man spinning his own destruction out of himself. The poem in fact treats man as perhaps already hopelessly trapped in his own web. Birney calls the work “a sort of letter-poem to the future, in hope there would still be someone in it who could, and would, read me” (CJ, p. 82). But the poem speaks of man as already extinguished—“These rays were ours.” In the earliest versions of the poem, the fourth-last line read “No one slew Prometheus,” implying that he killed himself.9 The poem also speaks of “the blast that snuffed us.” Yet it is this very assumption of apocalypse, when we realize it to be caused by man, which can activate the positive facet of man's paradoxical hubris. If man can destroy, he can create:

Yet we must speak
we conjured these flames                    hooped these sparks
by our will                    From blankness and cold we fashioned stars
to our size                    and signalled Aldebaran

To communicate and create from “our dream's combustion” is also our destiny and nature. In this perspective, we see that our created gods must be false; man is the creator; man is god. The courage to affirm involves the assumption of this responsibility for creation and, therefore, also for the risk of destruction. Man's heroism lies in this courage, the courage to create his own fate.

The relationship between the stand taken in “Vancouver Lights” and Birney's ideas about the impossibility of detachment, and about the irony-of-fate as dramatic irony writ large, is clear. Fate is a dramatist's trick; the poem invokes the notion to squash it. It should also be clear that Birney has not used irony to avoid commitment, but to construct for it a profound rationale. It is the threat of apocalypse which forces man to confront the radical fact of his alienation from the universe. This confrontation, because it is the only means of survival, provides grounds for affirmation—affirmation which in this poem rises to the heroic.

“Vancouver Lights” employs a first-person persona, but it is Birney's “cosmic I,” the speaker as the conscious representative of mankind. Birney has been criticized for this tendency and has himself expressed doubts about this “rhetorical” stage of his writing (CJ, pp. 82-83). It is certainly the case that a new Birney persona was to develop, less didactic, more human and attractive in many ways. But in this poem, at least, the “cosmic I” is justified, indeed, demanded. “Vancouver Lights” sets out to demolish false gods and raise man to their heroic level in the cause of the species' survival. What but the cosmic would do?


The new poems which Birney published in Now is Time (1945), Strait of Anian (1948), and Trial of a City (1952) continued to explore and refine the themes of those in his first book. But a stylistic change was underway, a change which emerged clearly in the poems first gathered in Ice Cod Bell or Stone (1962) and Near False Creek Mouth (1964). Most of these poems are set in other countries. On the whole, they are more relaxed and conversational in tone, with less emphasis on such structural devices as extended metaphor and regular stanza or rhyme forms. Most punctuation is abandoned and replaced with spaces. This latter change is part of a generally increased emphasis on the visual appearance of the poems, which is one of the ways Birney structures his work in the absence of more traditional devices.

Birney has said that his increased concern with visual form is partly an attempt to notate more precisely a poem's sound values.10 Therefore it is logical that the poet's personal “voice” is more apparent and important in these poems. In this sense and others, Birney is now recognizable “inside” his poems; in Al Purdy's words, “The situation and feeling have become personal.”11 But the Birney displayed in these poems is still a persona. This Birney's words and actions are as calculated and controlled—though never overtly—as the impersonal personae of his earliest poems. What is, in fact, new about these poems is their focus on relatively unimportant and casual incidents, whose meaning is worked out in individual terms. All of this implies poems which create characters and utilize incidents: poems, that is, which are to some extent dramatic. Therefore, this shift of tone, while it appears to bring, and no doubt sometimes does bring the reader closer to the personality of the poet, is paradoxically also a distancing device. It should then come as no surprise that Birney's ironic method remains, though his techniques of irony have modified. What changes least, perhaps, is Birney's basic thematic stance. His poems still confront an apocalyptic world in order to affirm life.

“A Walk in Kyoto” (II, 32-33), is one of the poems in which Birney appears in the guise of what has been called his tourist persona,12 consciously searching for meaning in the sights he sees, and for communication with the people he meets. This persona serves primarily as a device for an exploration of alienation. Birney says, of “A Walk in Kyoto,”

On one level, I feel it to be a record of a day's half-conscious hunting for a bridge of identity between my raw Canadian self and the subtle complexities of Japan's ancient capital, Kyoto.

(CJ, p. 96)

There is the implication here, not to be taken lightly, of the existence of other levels. There are also clues to those deeper understandings. In dramatizing his search, Birney has made it a good deal more than “half-conscious” (emphasis added): “where,” he asks, “can the simple song of a man be heard?” and he later enquires, “is this the Days one parable”? The poem is explicitly structured in the form of a tour “to walk [him] back into … brotherhood.”13 But Birney's alienation is more than tourist-deep. It is a psychological truism that the alienation of one human being from another is a result of alienation within oneself. Birney's “raw Canadian self” is present certainly in “A Walk in Kyoto,” but we are only aware of this because there is another Birney self, anything but raw, standing beside the first and constantly telling us about him. This is the essential feature of Birney's tourist persona. There is, of course, a third Birney, the craftsman who later shapes a real experience into poetic fiction. But this Birney is not, as the first two are, a “presence” in the poem.

The real conflict which Birney's art hides in “A Walk in Kyoto” (for purposes of more effective delayed revelation), is that between Birney's two selves. The means of hiding this conflict is the poem's seemingly single-minded, almost self-conscious quest for a link between Birney and the society he is visiting.

When Birney's inn-maid tells him “all week … / … is Boys Day / also please Mans Day …,” we may recognize the third Birney's sharp ear capturing some charming inflectional variations on the Queen's English. But basically, we are hearing what the tourist Birney heard. However, when he then asks, “… the magnolia sprig in my alcove / is it male …”? Birney is talking to himself. This happens throughout the poem and Birney's second self not only talks to his first in the form of musings and questions, but he pictures him:

                                                                                …                    i stand hunched
and clueless                    like a castaway in the shoals of my room

The slightly ridiculous picture the second Birney gives us of the first sometimes amounts to humorous self-deprecation, as when Birney describes the “… carp that flail … for the crumb this non-fish tossed.” This dichotomy between Birney's two selves is the dramatic representation of his alienation, and this alienation is the source of his need to seek an outward link. The poem thus dramatizes both an inner and an outer separation. The poem must be formally self-conscious in its quest because it deals precisely with an excessive consciousness of self. It follows that the moment of unity which Birney finds at the end of the poem is necessarily also an integration of himself. Such an integration is represented by the unselfconscious nature of the last few lines, where both Birney's selves have coalesced:

tall in the bare sky & huge as Gulliver
a carp is rising                    golden & fighting
thrusting its paper body up from the fist
of a small boy on an empty roof                    higher
& higher                    into the endless winds of the world

The poem has, in effect, moved beyond irony.

If the poem's final moment of brotherhood and unity works for the reader, it is because the images and symbols in its final lines carry with them a wealth of meaning accumulated throughout a poem dense as it is brief. In 1958, Japan was still reacting to its defeat, which was, in part, also a defeat of traditional Japan. In the poem we are introduced early to this fact through the maid's “small bowed body of an empire.” The flavour of that rapid westernization which was such a striking fact about post-war Japan is everywhere part of the poem:

                                                  … streets looking much as everywhere
men are pulled past on the strings
of their engines                    the legs of Boys
are revolved by a thousand pedals
& all the faces are taut & unfestive as Moscow's
or Toronto's                    or mine

Ironically, Birney here already has a link with the people of Japan, in that urban existence which is a mark of the modern world and which is practically synonymous with alienation as a phenomenon. The poem frequently contrasts modern and traditional Japan. The “penned carp,” in a frightening image of urban crowding and greed, “flail / on each others backs” next to the “Important Cultural Property.” This conflict of old and new is symptomatic of Japanese westernization: they too have been alienated, to whatever extent, from the very cultural traditions which are baffling Birney.

The poem presents several suggestions of uncertain sexual identity as part of a larger theme of identity. Birney isn't sure about the gender of his magnolia; in the Japanese theatre men play women and vice versa; and Birney points out an “hermaphrodite” Buddha. A second and eventually related concern of the poem is communication and the lack of it. The poem opens with the maid's cryptic revelation, but Birney is “clueless”; the gardens are “framed & untouchable”; Birney hears the vigor of the city “but the pitch is high”; meanwhile the alleys are

                                                  … jammed with competing waves
of signs in two tongues & three scripts

but nowhere “the simple song of a man.” Birney describes the Buddha as “500 tons / of hermaphrodite Word,” thereby linking the themes of sexual identity and communication in this last image before the poem's resolution. The Buddha is a symbol here of sexual identity achieved or transcended; and “Word,” suggesting communication of the incommunicable, forecasts a transcendence of the barriers of self in non-verbal communication.

The poem's final lines invoke all of these themes and others. They sum up a series of allusions to Gulliver's Travels. If the kite, in Birney's eyes, is “huge as Gulliver,” then his reduction at last to Japanese size is implied. The final lines incorporate, too, an ironic reversal: in verse-paragraph two, the men were pulled by “the strings / of their engines” and the boys' feet were being pedalled. Here, the boy is in control of the string. The phallic nature of the kite-image is obvious, and the carp is also a Japanese virility-symbol: “a carp is rising golden & fighting / thrusting its paper body up from the fist.” Thus both Birney's “phallic western eye” and the maid's “discrete” one can appreciate and share its meaning. The kite-carp, unlike those Birney saw “penned” earlier, is free and individual in its “fighting”—individual not in the sense of fighting others of its species but of fighting to ascend, to conquer its own limitations.

The poem's last line attempts to move it beyond the bounds of individual brotherhood and into the international sphere. This, for me, does not quite work; it becomes rhetorical. The reason lies, I believe, in the lack of preparation previously in the poem for an image of wind.

The Birney of “A Walk in Kyoto” is no longer entirely the same Birney who sought in his early poems to make himself and his readers aware of the world of apocalypse and death which lurks not outside but inside man. His message was that man is free to create or destroy and, therefore, responsible to choose and act. This view is still central to Birney's poetry. But he has moved on to confront in this poem, not the necessity of brotherhood, but its practice. The means to brotherhood must necessarily bring a consideration not of man but of men. His dialectic of detachment and commitment now works itself out on the individual level, but obviously he has not abandoned the large view or his explicitly social concerns.

“A Walk in Kyoto” records an experience of alienation, followed by a moment in which Birney experiences wholeness within himself, and, therefore, a meaningful connection with his surroundings. “Bangkok Boy” (II, 34-36) deals only with such a moment—expanding it to fill the poem. Therefore, though the persona is a tourist and recognizably Birney, there is only a faint suggestion of the self-conscious persona of the other poem.

“Bangkok Boy” is concerned, then, with a moment out of time, a moment of “coexistence of past, present and future.”14 But this moment is merely a stage for the presentation of deeper ironies. Birney's chief ironic technique in the poem is to create a formal gap between the dancing boy and the watching tourist. This is done visually by the clear separation, on the page, of Birney's description of the boy from his thoughts about him, and orally by the use of contrasting styles in each separate part. Paradoxically, one effect of the formal separation is to parallel man and boy. For this moment, each of them has stepped out of his milieu, out of his tradition and destiny: the persona can identify with the child's dance, and in this way experience a feeling of unity with him. This identification with the dance is the dominant feeling by the end of the poem. However, identification in turn serves to mask a deeper separation between boy and man which the poem only implies. This separation involves a conflict between innocence and experience, between the watcher's knowledge of the value of this free moment in the young boy's life—a moment such as the tourist can never again experience himself—and the boy's simple being, a state which can experience but cannot know. His moment of dance is thus both exhilarating and tragic; exhilarating in its freedom, tragic in light of Birney's knowledge of the boy's inevitable future. The poem, in jazz-dance rhythm, becomes Birney's own affirming moment of creation in the face of this knowledge. But it becomes also a plea to the boy and a prayer to himself that such creation may continue to exist.

The dance is central in “Bangkok Boy.” It is a symbol for humans caught and catching, for freedom expressed in the jaws of necessity. The poem's first lines hint that the need to dance is as much the necessary result of hot pavement on small bare feet as of boyish glee:

On the hot
cobbles hoppity
he makes a jig up

But environmental necessity is transformed into a triumph over environment by the activity of making up, creating a dance. Creativity is the link between Birney and the boy.

The “hot / cobbles” serve to link the boy's dance to the sun, which in this poem symbolizes knowledge (and, therefore, corruption), fatherhood (and, therefore, tradition), as well as youthful energy. Thus, the sun on the paving stones becomes a representation of the real economic and cultural necessities trapping the boy

dancing under the sun
                    that dances
                    over the toy king's
                    claw roofed palace
                    and blazes the roof
                    above the latest Hong Kong girlies
                    imported to strip
                    to the beat of copulation
                    and shimmers the broken-china towers
                    where ten thousand Buddhas
                    sit forever
                    on other boys' ashes

As we turn back to the boy, he is “In his own time,”

on the scene's edge
like a small monkey-
in the endless Ramayana fresco

The Ramayana is an epic myth-poem, the “life of Rama,” familiar to many Asian cultures. But the boy is at the fresco's “edge,” for this moment off-centre, and out of step with his culture. Birney also, it is important to see, is not part of the horde of tourists. Not only does he spend some time describing them, thus implying separation, but he describes himself as a “strayed / tourist.” Both Birney and the boy are temporarily out of their assigned roles, seizing a moment.

The other tourists who “… worship / in a regalia / of cameras,” are caught in a ritual, in which the pictures they take, “to immortalize” the carved temples, are examples of a stilling of time which is uncreative. The section is a fine evocation of a dance in which all are dancing to one grotesque tune: the formal culture of Thailand and the formal tourist rituals each reinforcing the other, the tourists

… splaying
to immortalize
the splayed gyrations
of temple dancers

Another formal parallel of the poem is important. As the first indented section was a vision of the world in which the boy will inevitably be caught, so the second such section is the world to which Birney, temporarily “strayed,” must soon return. So his description of the boy next begins to have the flavour of a plea:

Beat out
brown smallfry
beat out your own

The plea is as much against Birney's own return to the world-in-time as against the boy's. The third indented section, written in the third person, neatly manages to suggest Birney's own motions of return to his tourist role through the eyes of the boy. Thus, for a moment, Birney shares the boy's perspective, is able to see himself as he is seen:

he vanishes
in the fearful tempo of a taxi
to that spireless palace
where god-tall
in their chalked goblin-faces
all tourists return

In the fate of “all” tourists is the fate both of boy and man, who may only remain temporarily at the edge of “that frozen fresco.” Birney's “bare hotel pool” and “funeral music” are everyone's death. But for “this dazzled instant” all those powers waiting to catch the boy are themselves caught:

… your father's big
Buddha smile
and all the high
world bang in tune
the bright
sun caught

The next indentation makes clear the boy's and a whole class's fate: a hell of disease and toil. Now the plea becomes a supplication, a prayer that the poet and the boy may dance in the face of death. The pun on Thai, “tie,” indicating unity, is presumably intentional:

Scamper little Thai
hot on these hot stones
this is forever O for
all gods' sakes
beat out
that first
cry of joy
under the sun!

In Birney's thoughts, the boy dances now for the sake of all the gods: the “god-tall” tourist, and the boy's own clumping deities: economic, social, cultural. He dances, as the poem dances, to “beat out” the fires that threaten to consume us. The dance is an instant which, for the boy, will have to last for ever, because there will likely not be another. But the poem and dance are “forever”: evidence that man, caught as he must be in the world's dance, can make it nevertheless a “cry of joy.”

Not joy, however, but mere survival, in this post-atomic and pre-galactic age is all the affirmation offered in “November Walk near False Creek Mouth” (II, 43-51). Returning twenty years later to the scene of “Vancouver Lights,” Birney again becomes a fulcrum between man's world and the universe. It is wholly in keeping with the personal and informal style which he has now evolved that Birney is no longer atop Grouse Mountain; rather he takes a meandering November walk on the beach below. Apocalypse still threatens, but where Birney spoke, in the earlier poem, for a beleaguered humanity and adopted a “cosmic I” to defy the cosmos, his posture is now quietly individual. There is none of the ironic self-consciousness of Birney's tourist persona. What is perhaps most significant about the persona of this poem is his quietly despairing and yet accepting mood. This mood permeates the poem, unifies it, and makes its temporal setting more than external. The poem's autumnal feeling also helps to disguise its structure and its intellectual affirmation. So the persona of “November Walk,” like that of “Vancouver Lights,” adopts his appropriate pose. The conclusions to which these poems come are not dissimilar: “November Walk near False Creek Mouth” is Birney's most profound exploration of the paradox, in both poems, that meaning arises from the mind's contemplation of meaninglessness.

The essential ironic device of “November Walk” is formal: the poem seems to be an unstructured meditation, as meandering as the persona's walk. In fact, it is highly patterned and structured. For instance, the poem begins with a downward movement from the cosmos “to the dense unbeating black unapproachable / heart of this world” (p. 44). A parallel movement upward from the sea-bottom begins in Section IV, at the centre of the poem. The season and time of day and the sun's downward progress all help to pattern the poem. But there is a more important structural consideration. At the beginning of, and sometimes within, each section, there are italicized, chorus-like verse-paragraphs:

The time is the last of warmth
and the fading of brightness
The beat is the small                    slap                    slapping
The theme lies in the layers
Slowly                    scarcely sensed                    the beat
has been quickening …

(II, 43, 44, 48)

These repetitions suggest the persona's awareness of the inanimate forces of the universe as the basis of order for his observations and thoughts. If we prefer to treat the persona as overheard in the composition of a poem, then the repetitions telegraph the basis of order for his adapting and transforming in that creation. “November Walk” pictures a meaningless universe which is apparently echoed by a meaningless, fragmented human society. It is a powerful picture and tends to obscure the fact that the poem also pictures the very process of the mind's ordering of chaos. So the poem's form contains its meaning.

The poem begins,

The time is the last of warmth
and the fading of brightness
          before the final flash and the night
I walk as the earth turns
from its burning father
here on this lowest edge of mortal city

These lines encapsulate the meditation to come. First, they are representative of Birney's autumnal tone throughout, a singleness of tone which does much to mask the complexity of the real conflict the poem raises. Then, the poem is largely an expansion on the ways in which “the earth turns” from the sun and from all the ancient order the sun represents. The city is the poem's chief symbol for this modern disassociation; the denizens of the beach are mostly “the lovers / of what is not city” (II, 43). Approaching sunset, appropriately, symbolizes the threat of atomic catastrophe. Nuclear war, however, is not the chief apocalyptic threat of the poem; rather it serves itself as a symbol for the way man has destroyed the natural and mythical world in his creation of modern sterility—the real apocalypse. As the sun's setting during the course of the poem implies, this catastrophe has already happened; the poem mourns it.

If this is reminiscent of the persona's post-catastrophic point of view in “Vancouver Lights,” it is also worth noting that Birney is again using the imagery of light in the same paradoxical way. It is a further indication of Birney's thematic continuity that a crucial question in “David” is raised again in “November Walk.” Bob, in the early poem, says after he has pushed David off The Finger's ledge: “I will not remember how nor why I could twist / Up the wind-devilled peak …” (I, 112 [emphasis added]). The memory he tries to repress here is of an inner struggle which must have possessed him, at whatever level of consciousness, forcing him to fight off the urge to follow his friend over the ledge. Though Bob never verbalizes the lesson learned from his experience, except cryptically in the last line, the poem's action makes clear that Bob did find an answer to the “why” of living. The same question is asked by the persona of “November Walk,” when, in section II, he reaches both the geographical and psychological low point of his walk:

and I                    having clambered down to the last
shelf of the gasping world of lungs
do not know why I too wait                    and stare
before descending the final step
into the clouds of the sea

(II, 46)

But he does not take the “final step.” Seeking to know why he continues his living, the poet must examine his reduced world. Birney transforms the apparently random sights of the beach to a series of literary and mythic references, all treated ironically to suggest their modern irrelevance. The series moves back in time: from three writers; through the biblical story of the wise men, ironically here a

… wrinkled triad of tourists
seeking a starred sign for the bus-stop
They dangle plastic totems                    a kewpie
a Hong Kong puzzle for somebody's child
who waits to be worshipped
back on the prairie farm

Next there is “a local Buddha,” a beach bum (II, 45); then some representatives of Scandinavian mythology, now living trivially in Winnipeg; and finally “At the edge of knowledge the Prince Apollo / (or is it the Princess Helen?).” Canadian nature and mythology are easily disposed of. Birney wanders

… under the leafless maples
between the lost salt home
and the asphalt ledge where carhorns call
call in the clotting air by a shore
where shamans never again will sound
with moon-snail conch the ritual plea
to brother salmon or vanished seal

(II, 47)

The future envisioned in section VII is as bleak and meaningless as the present world. As man moves out to explore “… a galaxy-full perhaps / of suns and penthouses waiting,” (II, 51), how can a single sun remain our one “burning father” (II, 43)?

But still on the highest shelf of ever
washed by the curve of timeless returnings
lies the unreached unreachable nothing
whose winds wash down to the human shores

The abstraction of these lines would make them meaningless had they been unprepared for. But, in context, they assert that, however many suns man may outreach, the same cosmic forces of time and space will operate: mechanical in their operation, but infinite nevertheless, and “nothing” for both reasons. But the nothingness which is mechanical, when it is transformed through the human mind, gives form to the nothing which is infinite. As long as this infinity remains, man's mind has scope. The old structures of order have gone or are going. But their essence was the ordering mind and it remains

in the last of warmth
and the fading of brightness
on the sliding edge of the beating sea

(II, 51)

“November Walk near False Creek Mouth” has hidden a structure and meaning in apparent formlessness and fragmentation. The conflict which the poem thus hides and reveals is that between meaning and meaninglessness, between form and chaos. The reader is privy in this poem to the elemental struggle to order, which is itself affirmed to be the meaning and purpose of life.15

“The Mammoth Corridors” (II, 61-65), though it was not collected until Rag & Bone Shop (1971), is also a poem in the tradition of “Vancouver Lights” and “November Walk,” meditating upon aspects of landscape in order to illuminate the current human condition. “The Mammoth Corridors” begins geographically and thematically in the setting of “November Walk.” It is a poem which pictures man at the “blind corridor's end” (II, 63). It seems itself to be a journey into a blind end, but it is in fact also a mental journey which has for its object the facing and encompassing of that cold end. It restates the theme of “November Walk”: in facing the meaningless, we discover the only possible meaning. The conflict revealed in the poem is the paradox that it is our compulsion towards death which is man's survival force.

Several paradoxes are inherent in the poem's first lines:

Turning from the great islands drowning
in the morning's waves from Asia
my car heads me from the city's April
          cherry petals on the slick streets

(II, 61)

Birney turns from the east to drive east. And he turns from a Vancouver spring to make his way back into winter. His journey is thus hinted to be also a stasis, or a journey only of the mind. As the fourth line suggests, and as the later descriptions of Vancouver confirm, spring has little meaning, or only an ironic significance, in the urban world. The most important thing to notice about these first lines, however, is that Birney's car is apparently driving him. Throughout the poem, the car is seen as a force compelling Birney eastward:

my wheels will themselves …
                                                  … the master I own
has rushed me to winter …
                                        … my Engine unreels me
charges in a dazzle of snow …
I am pulled to
I am drawn against …

(II, 61, 62, 64, 65)

We are to see the car as a symbol of the sterile and mechanical urban world and of “the truths that compel” Birney, which are the decadent results of that world: “… ulcers vitamins bulletins accidia.” As such, the car leads Birney and his society as the mammoths led the Siberians, “past the point / of no return.” The poem pictures our society fast becoming extinct; it is as dependent on the car, and by extension on technology, as the Siberians were on the mammoths. But the fact that the Siberians turned westward when “… the last red fountains … gushed … at the blind corridor's end” (II, 63) suggests that the same force which compels a society toward extinction may thereby compel it also to face and conquer the new situation.

The Siberians “possessed” the Rockies not merely by learning to live off the new land, but by exorcising its dangers and realities,

                              … by capturing the deer's Wit
the Power of cougar
          in nets of dance and word
          the medicine of mask
          the threat of drum

As this understanding comes to the persona, ironic symbols of man's progress toward extinction are clustered in the “tourist-brochure” counterpoint which accompanies the poem:16

In the nearby museum, mounted specimens of
                                                  the wild life,
and a spacious diorama outlining the story of
                                                            man. No charge.
Through Calgary …
… Canada's greatest car-per-capita
city … in Bowness Park, life-sized models of
                                                  dinosaurs that once roamed the area

As Birney heads into the lingering prairie winter, the element of compulsion is stressed and made more universal. He remembers

where all began for me
          … the log cabin where first i was forced
into air

(II, 64)

Birney's progress into the whiteout of the Prairies is at once a journey into the “nothing” of “November Walk,” and into the realization of the need to give meaning to this nothing:

i am pulled to a sky of land
flattened white to the Pole

The wind from the polar icecap is personified as “the breath of that madcap virgin / mother of ice.” This personification—the only significant one in the poem—is a personification of the forces of frigidity, of Birney's and his society's death. It is Birney's way of giving meaning to that force, death or nothingness, toward which he has been drawn.

Like the mammoths who seemed to lead the Siberians to death and a blind end, but in fact led them to a new life, Birney's society has led him to its winter. Driving into the real winter, Birney can face, and come to terms with, the spiritual winter which is represented by the urban sterility of Vancouver. Precisely because Birney “cannot forget” the “Greenland lodger,” and that he “… is graved / with her monstrous rutting” (II, 65), he may be able to survive. Thus the purpose of the counterpointed brochure prose is to provide an example of the kind of avoidance of reality which leads to, and is part of, society's death. But Birney too may outlive sleep by capturing the essence of man's new enemy, by encircling spiritual winter “in nets of dance and word / the medicine of mask” (II, 64). His poem is just such a spell.

The development of Birney's poetry has always been most clearly a matter of form. His techniques are rooted in the ancient traditions of English prosody, and he has used and modified numerous genres and forms in a continuing search for ways to communicate his meanings. Birney's concern with the sound of his poems has perhaps been the constant in all his experimentings. It seems to have been the basis for his earliest attention to visual form, and that attention began in the 1940s.17 Many of the poems in Ice Cod Bell or Stone employ unorthodox typography and, by 1964, with the publication of Near False Creek Mouth, Birney had largely abandoned traditional punctuation. Thus, Birney's later concrete poetry represents no sudden change. It is rather the culmination of a gradual and consistent development. That affirmation within irony may also be important to Birney's concrete poetry is suggested by the following analysis by William Gray of “up her can nada” (II, 159), a poem which forms a map of Ontario:

… through an ironic mixture of enduring will and joy Birney composes a map which unites the disparate elements of his country. The blend of colours, type sizes and visual patterns is both chaotic and creative; such linguistic art truly imitates the life it signifies, and on this most Concrete level manages to convey an identity. As in “November Walk”, Birney depicts the Canadian identity as a surface chaos containing an underlying potential for creative order and life.18

But since content and form are not properly separable things, it would be wrong to say that Birney has merely put old wine into new bottles in his latest, or any of his poetry. Though an active humanism is basic to all of his poetry, the poems of the sixties and seventies are usually less proselytizing, more relaxed both in tone and intellectual structure. Birney's views inform his poetry which, however, seems more and more to have accepted the world as it is. In Birney's recent books, more of the poems than ever before are love poems. In fact, his whole development towards freedom of form, towards informality, and towards introspection, is accurately described as a movement toward the romantic pole of literary expression. In this sense, Birney's poetic development itself reflects a willingness to go beyond irony toward affirmation.

In resigning his heroic attempt to modernize the Canadian Authors Association, Birney wrote in 1949,

For to age is common, but not as the CAA ages, for by its hostility to the work of the young it fails to renew itself with the blood of youth.19

That Birney's work seems to increase in youthfulness as he grows older is no accident. It is part of his ethos, part of what has always made his writing important. To conclude, then: a light look at one of Birney's most youthful poems. But it will be no surprise to find therein some old familiar concerns.

“Curiously, what irony often teaches,” said Birney in 1936, “is simply the necessity for a sense of humour …” (“CI,” I, i, 35). What Birney the scholar recognized, took a little longer for Birney the poet to work out. But by 1968, a Birney had developed who could write in such a puckish manner that “Song for Sunsets” (I, 58) just avoids tumbling into an abyss of cuteness. In spite of its tone, however, the poem is essentially ironic in method and revolves around those cosmic contrasts in size, of which Birney is so fond.

But there is more than a difference of tone in “Song,” as compared, say, with “Vancouver Lights.” Birney's more recent poem has a different resolution, which, while it affirms human prerogatives, also assents in the relationship of those prerogatives to an indifferent cosmos.

“Song” is composed in the form of an ode to the sun, which is personified ironically. The poem's easy colloquialism and simplicity are used to mask a subtle affirmation that it is human life which gives meaning to an unthinking cosmos. This colloquial method allows Birney to address the sun with great familiarity, the implication of which is equality, if not contempt. The poem's contrasts in size are, therefore, ironic and serve to point out human largeness.

Each verse-paragraph of the poem describes a comic and cosmic backward “somersault” from the sun, and both the visual appearance of the poem on the page, and the poem's syntax reinforce this. The whole poem should be seen as a comic inversion in which Birney pretends to be merely a speck

… on the little ball
so slowly rolling
backwards from you

But, allowing for the change of tone, it is clear that Birney has not forgotten his perch on those mountains above Vancouver's lights. The second verse-paragraph glances lightly at the “black” side of life—man's slightly ridiculous “dumb / somersault.” Apparently man needs the sun to keep the universe regular while he sleeps. The sun “never sleeps,” according to verse-paragraph three, and seems, therefore, not to be part of that process of changing and dying which characterizes life on earth, symbolized in the poem by the alternation of night and day. But although the sun “never notices,” is indifferent, the reader may notice that the sun is responsible for the alternation.

“Song” is a poem almost childlike in tone. Birney's pose as a child of the universe is continued when he says “goodnite” to “big dad.” But it is the sly, old child who adds

we'll switch on now
our own small stars

Man's “somersault” turns out not to be so “dumb” after all, and in fact he doesn't need the sun. Or does he? Man lies

          … in darkness burning
through unspace untime

Man has transcended the mechanical universe and can invent his own light, out of solar space and time. But he also invents it from the sun, from the stored energy of coal and oil, and so the poem swings inevitably

… upsadaisy back
i trust to you

(I, 58)

The poet cannot be sure of the next day, cannot be sure of life, for all his inventing. For that mortal disease there is no remedy but “trust.” A trust whose precariousness we now feel, and which we realize has been part of the poem, part of its sense of fragility, of second childhood. A song for sun sets after all.

I have sought in this essay to present a view of Birney, the humanist, the affirmer of life. But I have sought to show that his humanism is anchored in human reality. Birney's affirmation arises only from an unflinching acceptance of man's destructiveness, his death-wish. Such an affirmation demands the ironic.

But I want to conclude not with these technical terms, but with some more human. In a review of Rag & Bone Shop, Judith Copithorne says

There's something very sad in much Canadian poetry. It comes from the experiencing of a non sanctified universe without the joys of an accepted animal existence. Now's the time to touch gently. Dreams we all have, are we realizing them?20

Birney's craft and humanity combine in his poems precisely to realize our dreams.


  1. “Chaucer's Irony,” Diss. Toronto 1936, 2 vols., I, i, 55. All further references to this work (“CI”) appear in the text.

  2. I have, in fact, quoted this definition from Birney's “English Irony Before Chaucer,” University of Toronto Quarterly, 6 (1937), 540, because it is a more compact version of the same thing.

  3. In “Proletarian Literature: Theory and Practice,” Birney states, “Proletarian art, as the art of class-conscious and struggling men, can be little more than a lucky incident in a career primarily devoted to the more direct and urgent tasks of political argument and political struggle” (The Canadian Forum, May 1937, p. 60). See also Birney's recent statements on this period in “Canlittering with the Forum: 1936-42,” in The Canadian Forum, April 1980, p. 10.

  4. See Earle Birney, The Cow Jumped Over the Moon: The Writing and Reading of Poetry (Canada: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972), p. 6. All further references to this work (CJ) appear in the text. See also Frank Davey, Earle Birney, Studies in Canadian Literature (Toronto: Copp Clark, 1971), pp. 20-21.

  5. The Collected Poems of Earle Birney, 2 vols. (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1975), I, 27. Unless otherwise noted, all further references to Birney's poems are to this work and appear in the text. “Slug in Woods” was first published in The Canadian Forum, Feb. 1937, p. 22.

  6. Milton Wilson, “Letters in Canada, 1964: Poetry,” University of Toronto Quarterly, 34 (1965), 350.

  7. “Earle Birney's ‘David’: A Reconsideration,” CV/II, 2, No. 3 (Aug. 1976), 27.

  8. Richard Robillard, Earle Birney, New Canadian Library, Canadian Writers, No. 9 (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1971), p. 24.

  9. Now is Time (Toronto: Ryerson, 1945), p. 16.

  10. Selected Poems 1940-1966 (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1966), pp. x-xi.

  11. “A Pair of 10-Foot-Concrete Shoes,” The Fiddlehead, No. 65 (Summer 1965), p. 75.

  12. See Sylvia Frieson, “The Development of the Ironic Persona in the Work of Earle Birney,” M.A. Thesis Manitoba 1975.

  13. From “Cartagena de Indias, 1962,” Collected Poems, II, 72, which is also a poem utilizing the tourist persona for an examination of alienation.

  14. Bruce Nesbitt, Introduction, in Earle Birney, ed. and introd. Bruce Nesbitt Critical Views on Canadian Writers, No. 9 (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1974), p. 17.

  15. Peter C. Noel-Bentley (“A Study of the Poetry of Earle Birney,” M.A. Thesis Toronto 1966) comes close to my view of “November Walk,” when he says

    … godhead has not yet been achieved by man, and never will be: and as long as it never is, there is room for growth.

    (p. 132)

    But is “godhead” the right word, when Birney finds God within man or nowhere? The comparison with Browning which Dr. Noel-Bentley makes is surely inappropriate. Is it not precisely a 19th-century sort of view of everlasting progress which Birney must have rejected in rejecting change through revolution? In his concern to face and encompass, as the definers of life, meaninglessness and death, Birney approaches rather the existential pole of thought.

  16. Though Birney took some phrases from real tourist brochures, he invented most of them. “Alfred Stettler's Guide to the Canadian West (Midnapore, Alta.: Prairie Flower Press, 1964),” which was acknowledged in one of the poem's many incarnations—in The Tamarack Review, No. 41 (Autumn 1966), pp. 42-47—is equally fictitious. (Letter received from Birney, 2 Nov. 1975.)

  17. Caroline Bayard and Jack David [Interview with Earle Birney], in Out-Posts / Avant-Postes, ed. Caroline Bayard and Jack David (Erin, Ont.: Porcépic, 1978), esp. pp. 109-10. See also Birney's account of his early childhood acquaintance with shapes of words in “Birney Recounts Growing Up with CanLit,” Quill & Quire, May 1980, p. 8.

  18. “Earle Birney's Concrete Architecture: Beginnings and Ends,” CV/II, 2, No. 2 (May 1976), 45.

  19. Here and Now, 1 (Jan. 1949), 86-87; rpt. in Louis Dudek and Michael Gnarowski, eds., The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada: Essential Articles on Contemporary Canadian Poetry in English, 2nd ed. (Toronto: Ryerson, 1979), p. 148.

  20. Judith Copithorne, “Birney Burns Brightly On,” Georgia Straight, 3-10 March 1971, p. 21.

J. B. Zenchuk (essay date 1981)

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SOURCE: Zenchuk, J. B. “Earle Birney's Concrete Poetry.” In Perspectives on Earle Birney, pp. 104-29. Downsview, Ontario, Canada: ECW Press, 1981.

[In the following essay, Zenchuk traces the introduction and development of Birney's concrete poetry, which combined text and visual elements in ways that were unconventional at the time Birney began experimenting with them.]


If Earle Birney admits non-linguistic features into his poetry it is not out of any desire to eliminate the word altogether. Birney was and remains a poet rather than a graphic artist. The page is the medium, but language is both the tool and the material of his art, and his first love, whether he is writing concrete or conventional verse. The difference is that in concrete the medium becomes active by conscious design. Through the use of form, typography, and layout, the page is made to contribute vigorously to the overall poetic effect. What is important in such poetry is not the new visual element in itself, but the interplay of visual and verbal material, the synthesis of two art forms.

Since the 1950s Birney has been actively campaigning for the merger of the visual and verbal arts. In The Creative Writer, he hails the appearance in recent times of a poetry which seeks to ally itself with dance, music, sculpture, and painting:

There's still another world of poetic experimentation today, based on a growing awareness of the primitive unity of all the arts. … Verbal art today is constantly going out to the other arts for aid in reaching the primitive sensuousness of man.1

In his 1957 essay, “Poets and Painters: Rivals or Partners,” Birney calls for a closer cooperation between poets and painters in Canada with the aim of producing “that unity of figure and design and colour and word which can turn a book into a higher entity. …”2 What is needed, Birney argues, is not so much that painters should write poetry or that poets should try to paint—such interloping produces for the most part uneven results—but for poets and painters to work to bring the two arts together under one roof. Birney mentions the profitable partnerships that sprang up between Matisse and Mallarmé, Bonnard and Verlaine. And of course he mentions Blake: Blake the anomaly, the magnificent rebel who drew on the combined resources of two arts for the articulation of his vision. “It was Blake,” writes Birney, “who reunited the verbal and visual worlds in England, Blake in whom the two arts were so balanced that it has been possible to say of him, ‘he wrote like a painter and painted like a poet.’”3

The concrete poems are Birney's essays in search of an artistic literature. In works such as “UNIVERSITY,” “FIGURE SKATER,” and “like an eddy,” Birney joins with George Herbert (“Easter wings,” 1633), Panard (“Rabelais Bottle,” c. 1760), Mallarmé (“Un Coup de Dés,” 1897), Apollinaire (“Il Pleut,” c. 1916), and a small group of contemporaries in Brazil, France, and England, in an effort to rediscover the magic of a lost art that used both written and visual material at once. His poems are excursions in search of a poetry that speaks not only the language of words, grammar, and syntax, but that of form, composition, colour, and texture as well, a poetry that addresses both the intelligence and the sense perceptions of the reader; it is a poetry both spatial and temporal, whose apprehension, in the manner of human experience, is both sequential and instantaneous. The kind of poetry that Birney here would write embodies the truth of Simonides' insight that painting is mute poetry; poetry, a speaking picture.

In concrete poetry form speaks first. The offhand, whimsical tracery of “earmuff tree ripening,” aimless, gentle—a cordial invitation to play, to discover the forms of letters in furrows, leaves, the discrete fall of a thread; the fluid, casual rhythm of “like an eddy”—a spiraled filament of words that, like the exact and unmeditated brush-stroke of the Chinese calligrapher, captures for an instant the poet's fugitive persona; or the tense and spare precision of “academic” whose hard lines betray its obstinacy and obsession—these are the intimations of form. But apart from one or two wholly graphic compositions (I am thinking in particular of the enigmatic “mad / mod / odd / ad / man”) Birney's concrete poems never rely on form alone. Even in the oddest of them we can still make out letters, words, and phrases, and discover (or create) correspondences between these words and the forms that contain / are contained by them. In the majority of the poems, graphic and linguistic elements contribute equally to overall tone and texture, and determine between themselves the poem's sphere of significance. “CANADA COUNCIL,” for example, is visually dominated by the huge, unblinking, somehow obscene eye at its centre. The eye sets the mood of the poem; the words huddled on its periphery complete it. Blunt and unpromising, they are thrust outward by the force of that economising gaze, impelled like missiles into the public space. There is no life in them, no nourishment—a dry wind for the parched soil of artistic enterprise in Canada, a crushing no for the hopeful who has put his neck on the line for some of the Council's coin.4 There is something equally uncompromising about “UNIVERSITY.” The poem is the product of rigorous structural laws that decree its unrelenting declension towards the meagre, solitary, and egotistical “U” at its base. The entire unwieldy structure rests its weight of letters on the individual at its tip and, balanced there, threatens imminent collapse. What holds it all together—the principle of composition in the poem—is its internal logic. Its successive terms are controlled permutations of the title word and play not only semantically on that word as the name of an institution, but visually, structurally, and aurally as well on the word as an object, on its shape, sound, and progression. There is a kind of visual and auditory rhythm to this which complements the rhythm set up by the words themselves. With the sum of such effects the poem suggests itself as a metaphor for the too-frequent fate of the free-thinking individualist at the corporate hands of the university. In “CHAT bilingual,” the outline of two cats creates a visual echo to correspond with the verbal one of “CHAT” / “CAT”—two names in two languages for the same thing. The poem argues (among other things) that it is not the word that is important: it is only a symbol. What matters is the thing symbolized. Word and image combine in the poem to create a concise argument for the existence of stronger ties between English and French Canadians, as between men of all nationalities, than differences of language and culture might admit. With its pun on the French, the poem suggests that the “CHAT” between anglophones and francophones in Canada need not attend on a federal program of bilingualism; it can begin the minute we recognize our co-existent reality which alone is the basis of brotherhood. What is intriguing about this poem is that Birney is able to suggest all of this with two simple figures composed of letters and a title.

Birney does not always use form so graphically as this in his concrete. In “Irapuato,” for example, form is simply a matter of lines and spaces, but again it is entirely functional. The lack of any logic governing the end of one line and the beginning of the next is disturbing. The poem's scattered, fragmented lines create a visual confusion and alarm which make the tone of its speaker somehow incongruous:

For reasons any
                                                                                could tell
this is a favourite
                                                                                for massacre

So offhand is that pronouncement that we are apt to pass over the poem's words without becoming emotionally aware of their significance. It's the form that alerts us. It stirs us from our complacency and forces us to attend to the storm raging beneath the speaker's outward calm. Those white spaces are too long for comfort; they slow down our reading enough to let the flies and the derricks and the blood on the earth impress themselves on our minds. Broken and staggered, they betray a tension in the speaker's voice, a tightness in the throat from a rage that rises from within to break through the surface of the poem, scattering its lines across the page:

Toltex by Mixtex Mixtex by Aztex
Aztex by Spanishtex Spanishtex by Mexitex
by Mexitex                    by Mexitex                    by Texaco
So any farmer can see how the strawberries
are the biggest
                                        and reddest
                                                                                in the whole damn continent
but why
                                        when arranged
                                                                                under the market flies
do they look like small clotting hearts?

(II, 14)

The taut, difficult lines of the poem suggest, perhaps better than anything else could, their speaker's torn and troubled mind.

Here and in poems like “Nayarít,” “Epidaurus,” and “On the Beach,” Birney abandons conventional poetic forms and tests instead the expressive power of a line freed from the monotony of the typesetter and the publisher's arbitrary decree. His is not a flippant defiance of convention. Birney has every respect for convention, but he understands too that custom may on occasion be more profitably served in the breach than the observance. Birney insists that “Living art, like anything else, stays alive only by changing” (CW, p. 72), and to those who, like Andy Wainwright, accuse him of “revolution for revolution's sake,”5 he replies:

Writing, all writing, is a pictorial agreement about signs and other gimmicks. A page was, and is, a place to put markings. The “linear aspect of poetry” is neither a universal nor an immortal necessity, except for linotypers. Chinese poetry moves from top to bottom and from right to left, and sometimes both ways at once. Apollinaire and Finlay move in any direction. Wainwright continues to clump in heavy-booted prose from false premises left-right to false conclusions. “Concrete poems”, he says, “contain the assumption that the linear aspect of poetry is not alive.” I've never heard of any poet taking that either-or position; I certainly don't. I accept the best technology of the world I live in, which allows my publisher to offset my poems straight or crooked, slanting like rain or curving like balloons, and to print them in black, green, red, or whatever colour of ink I choose for a word or a page. The “concrete” poet is not alone in “making pictures with words”; a page in a book is itself a visual experience, however conventionally it is laid out. But some critics see with only half an eye.

(“Epilogue,” in EB, p. 213)

No longer bound to any norm, the lines of Birney's typographical poems array themselves at the disposal of his creative energies. The page of the poem then becomes, as Howard McCord puts it, “a map on which the articulation of consciousness can be charted. …”6 We can watch Birney tuning the poetic line to his own inner sensibilities as he makes his revisions to “On the Beach.” In an earlier collection, Pnomes jukollages & other stunzas, the poem had begun like this:

I watch her turning in the sand as she runs
twisting on pliant feet to the shore
Once I would spin like that to the waves

Six years later, in The Collected Poems, the lines appear again, but now they are more tentative, halting:

i watch her turning in the sand
twirling as she runs
on pliant feet to the shore
once i would spin like that to the waves

(I, 170)

By abandoning the regular tetrameter line and segmenting the narration, Birney succeeds in making the poem less an account of outward events and more a record of the speaker's experience of them. Each new line, each phrase, is a bit of that experience, joined to the others by one consciousness, separated from them by countless distractions, remembrances, and dreams. The white spaces between the lines and within them are not empty but are full of emotional and psychological activity—realignments, evaluations, excursions, and returnings. The poem has become a detailing of inner consciousness. Its unique visual form does not sit idly by, but adds its own antithetical lines to the canvas. Trammelled with age, the poem's speaker apparently contents himself with following “in a small trot only” (I, 171) after the wheeling girl to the sea's surf. But the poem's typographically distinct last line, erupting in “a full sexual reel”7 across the page, betrays his inner anguish and desire. The poem's form carries the expression of a deeper personality than has made itself known to us through words alone.

At times Birney uses typography to underscore the sonic values in a poem. Throughout his career Birney has continued to insist that poems are meant for the ear as well as for the eye and mind. His concern is shared by others, among them Edward Sapir who writes,

The inestimable advantages of the art of writing, in poetry as in music, have been purchased at a price. Impressions originally meant for the ear have been transcribed into visual symbols that give at best but a schematized version of the richly nuanced original. … We have become so accustomed to taking in poetry through the eye that I seriously doubt if the purely auditory intentions are as clear to all as is light-heartedly assumed.8

The importance to Birney of the sound a poem makes cannot be over-emphasized. It lies at the very centre of his conception of poetry and is often the seminal and shaping principle in his work. Out of his desire to share with an audience this aspect of his art, Birney has travelled around the world to give recitations, frequented recording studios, and has tirelessly encouraged every reader of his or anyone else's work to “sound” the poem before him. In The Creative Writer, he applauds wholeheartedly the recent resurgence of interest in the sonic aspect of verse:

Today there's been going on a great affirmation of poetry as something inescapably auditory as well as visual, a creation successful only when it conveys its maker's unique inner voice, a thing to be spoken or chanted or sung, as in the beginnings, with craft and with care, and yet still a poem in space, working on the eye.

(p. 72)

Birney's poems are an invitation to the experience of verbal music. Here, we can sample the husky consonantal lumpishness of Old English in “Mappemounde,” the resonant Norse (a survival, the author tells me, of twelfth-century Viking Norwegian and North Lowland Scots)9 of “Tea at My Shetland Aunt's,” or the metallic, commercial music of “Six-Sided Square: Actopan.” On disc, Birney's voice weaves a soundscape of accent, volume, and cadence in poems like “Appeal to a Lady with a Diaper,” “Ellsmereland,” and “Anglosaxon Street.” In the lovely “Sestina for the Ladies of Tehuántepec,” his voice alternates between the cool, indifferent tones of the tourist guide and the secret, sibilant music of lines such as these:

Goldnecklaced          turbaned          swaying in the square of Diaz
volute and secret as the orchids in their isthmus
braids black and luminous as obsidian by hotsprings
beneath their crowns of fruit                    and crested live iguanas
rhythmic and Zapotecan-proud the classic women
dance (v. marimbas) their ancient therapy for earthquakes(10)

(II, 25)

“My words,” writes Birney, “are my music; the printing of them is their notation, the nearest I can get to signalling their sound in the absence of a disc publisher willing to record anything other than ‘David.’”11 In the text of “to Swindon from London by Britrail aloud / Bagatelle,” Birney supplies the score for a sound-poem; the poem itself will be unique and unprecedented at every performance. In “Appeal to a Lady with a Diaper” and “Billboards Build Freedom of Choice,” typographical devices are used to suggest possible readings; elsewhere, as in “Kiwis” and “Four Feet Between,” they are used in an attempt to recreate as accurately as possible the idiosyncracies of human speech, the sound of dialect and idiom. Milton Wilson has determined that “The poems [of Near False Creek Mouth] that rely too heavily on Birney's (not always very fresh) ear for North American cliché and vulgarity are unimaginative and tiresome …” (EB, p. 135). But it is not cliché and vulgarity that Birney is reproducing here, but the sound of them, and that sound is indispensable to the poem. The “Billboards” poem, for example, when read aloud, betrays its speaker as a bigot and a boor not only by what he says or by the coin-hard idiot-edged words he uses, but by the sound of them as well. It is the sound of pistol fire in “PREPAID CATASTROPHE COVERAGE” and the sound of the foghorn in “America Builds More / buildbores to bill more—.” In the truck's cab, the poet slumps back in dismay; for there is no reaching through to this man, no cutting through this fog of signs and slogans in a society that worships the ad-man's wisdom. Gradually, the speaker's language and even his thoughts become that of the billboard:

                                                  … Who's got time
for a third tit? two parties is Okay
that's                    DEMOC                    sure but yegit three
yegot Commies I'm tellinyeh
is like dose damfool niggers in
in Asia someweres all tryin to be nootrul
I tellyeh treesa crowd                    a crowda
yeah an yewanna help Burma?                    help
                              BURMA SHAVE
yewanna keep the longhairs from starvin?
                              BUY HANDMADE TOY SOLDIERS

(I, 55)

Similarly, the language of the businessman in the “Diaper” poem is precisely that clipped, deft language of advertising that makes an impact without the aid of intelligent substance. In what is perhaps his earliest concrete poem, “Mammorial Stunzas for Aimee Simple McFarcin,” Birney creates a cacophony of sounds (Paul West calls the poem “that telling mutilation” [EB, p. 123]) that is an apt comment on Aimee's Hollywood-style revival antics. The poem's high spirits, boisterous wordplay, and typographical abandon contrast sharply with the serious criticism the author levels at the religious entrepreneur. There is little hilarity left in the poem at its end, in the words that echo Jehovah's judgement on Belshazzar: “Mene, Mene, Tekel Upharsin.”12 Tone and purpose are at odds in the poem and the full meaning and effect of it is generated by the tension between them. Here, as in many other poems by Birney, the sound the poem makes is not just an incidental by-product of meaning, but a force active in the creation of it.


Certainly the excitement and boldness of concrete had something to do with attracting Birney to that contrary quarter. But, while nothing could be more natural than that Birney, a tireless defender of freedom in the arts, should turn to concrete, it is equally natural that out of the same conviction he should steer a wide course around its credos. The truth of it is that Birney never became a devotee of concrete as a movement, never became a disciple of Gomringer or Garnier. The physiognomy of the letter and the complexities of verbal architecture held no fascination for him except insofar as they made new kinds of poetries possible. Birney very naturally took advantage of the liberating virtue of concrete, adapting the movement's ideas and methods to his needs in order to release his singular creative energies in a flow of words and pictures that pays scant heed to the “Pilot Plan” or any other manifesto. What lies behind this unbridled creativity is a dream, a dream that centres on the reinstatement of poetry as an active and vital force in our daily lives. Birney's career as a poet can be largely understood as the history of his efforts to draw poetry out of the confines of the academy and spread it among the people after its long sequestration at the hands of highly cerebral and abstruse poets such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Birney has a good deal in common with these writers (his regard for the terse statement and the spare image matches Pound's), but he differs from them in proclaiming that poems belong not only in books and classrooms and learned journals, but on billboards, mobiles, and kite-tails as well, that they are most alive when sung, painted, sculpted, or simply enjoyed at a picnic.

… I seriously and happily look forward to the day when rooms will swing with mobile poems, and the lobbies of our public buildings will be hung with verses inworked with murals, and engraved with things more verbally exciting and more “depth involving” than the names of founders, or sinister fingers pointing to toilets.

(CW, p. 80)

Birney is convinced that “… poetry can be as public an experience as can any other art” (CW, p. 77), and he works towards the day of poetry's re-emergence as the everyday, community-shaping, pleasure-dealing influence it once was, when it will become again as catching and as widespread as laughter, drawing people together in mutual appreciation of the power of art. Because poetry cannot be the possession of any single individual, because it belongs to all times and all places, it can be the shared treasure of a race, a force working towards a universal brotherhood of man. Birney knows this. He has travelled the globe in search of community: from the dusty highways of India where, a stranger in a strange land, a tourist on a “bald alien plain,” he discovers a strange fellowship with a displaced bear and its captors—bare, spindly men struggling like himself “to free / myth from reality”;13 to the teeming streets of Kyoto where, among “lilliput gardens framed & untouchable / as watercolours,” he feels alone until, at the sight of a boy feeding his kite to the sky, sending it higher and higher above sagging rooftop tiles on winds of hope, a maid's “closed lotus” face opens to him at last in the friendship of a shared understanding.14 It is in “Cartagena de Indias, 1962,” however, that he finds the bridge he has been looking for. His own poem becomes the web of language and form which mediates between himself and his reader. In his discovery the poet is exultant:

I love the whole starved cheating
poetry-reading lot of you                    most of all
for throwing me the shoes of deadman Luis
to walk me back into your brotherhood

(II, 72)

Birney writes, “… my poems are the best proof I can print of my humanness, signals out of the loneliness into which all of us are born and in which we die, affirmations of kinship with other wayfarers, and above all with you, my Not Impossible Reader, who will go on from here” (SP, p. xii).

This is why Birney writes poetry, why he has innovated and conformed, sampled every style, traded (like Dryden) with both the living and the dead—with Chaucer and the Anglosaxon scop, with the Noigandres poets and the Black Mountaineers—for the enrichment of his art. The eclecticism, the energy, the willingness to experiment and change, all have this purpose: to put poetry back into our lives where it can achieve its innate potential as an agent of delight and community:

Only two forces continue to operate, it seems to me, clearly in the direction of meaningful and pleasurable creativity, in the direction of peace and relative happiness. And these are love, and art. And only art has within it the principle of order. But “art” is also too grand a concept. There are The Arts. One of them, perhaps even the oldest, is poetry.

(CW, p. 2)

In the concrete poems, Birney exploits the mechanical resources of the typewriter and the linotype in creating a poetry for modern man, a poetry which is accessible, immediate, and alive, which is not maimed by the machine, but is liberated by it. Seen from this perspective, the concrete poetry does not appear quite so bizarre. It can be understood as a healthy issue of the same deep impulse that underlies Birney's more familiar lyrics rather than as a radical departure from it. By its directness and simplicity, by its frankness and use of unpretentious graphics that, skirting the barrier of language, appeal directly to the feeling and imaginative centres of its audience, concrete simply provides Birney with a means of approaching one step nearer his goal of a universal and public poetic art.

This is where the concrete poems find their usefulness. They are not a prescription for the ailments which afflict poetry today. Nor are they a model for a poetry of tomorrow. Birney knows well enough that good poems can still be written without recourse to typographical or unusual visual effects, and he himself has written a few of them to prove it. The concrete poems represent neither the summit of Birney's artistic development nor even his chief preoccupation. Birney continues to re-work his “visuals” to this day; he continues to sprinkle them throughout his collections. But he has taken up several new interests (and a few old ones) as well. We do Birney and his work a disservice in trying to attribute to his concrete poems an importance they do not have. But, by the same token, we ignore them at the risk of a full and balanced understanding of the poet's work.

I have suggested one reason behind Birney's excursion into concrete. Another is his ongoing effort to persuade the reader away from a narrow preoccupation with meaning in a poem and urge him instead towards a total appreciation of it. Birney has been at this since his earliest days as a teacher. He understands that, insofar as all poems have some visual configuration on the page and make some sonic representation to the ear, all poems are concrete. All, therefore, communicate to the reader by their sound and appearance, as well as by their rhythms and verbal texture, their choice of imagery and allusion, the type and quality of their metaphors. And of course they communicate with their ideas. But with the exception of this last, the poem's content of ideas, all its messages are virtually ignored. Most reading of poetry today consists of little more than the systematic extraction of its thought. At the best of times, says Alicia Ostriker, “We read, carefully, and suppose that sufficient. We hear what we read, superficially and clumsily. We see what we read, virtually not at all.”15

As a reaction to this situation, there has been a general turning away from a poetry of ideas on the part of many modern writers. The mistrust of Realism in the twentieth century is in part an aspect of this response. I am thinking here of Saul Bellow's remarks on the inadequacy of a literature of ideas:

For as long as novelists deal with ideas of good and evil, justice and injustice, social despair and hope, metaphysical pessimism and ideology, they are no better off than others who are involved cognitively with these dilemmas. They can only go the same ways: the liberal way, the way of nature, the Promethean way, the way of socialism—the list is almost endless. From it the writer may make his choice and proceed to affirm his truth. It is then scarcely possible for his art to avoid the fate of his ideas. They triumph together or fall together.16

Similar feelings have appeared in Pound and Hulme (I recall somewhere Pound's curt judgement: “Damn ideas, anyhow!”), and underlie Eliot's theory of the “objective correlative.” We think too of Archibald MacLeish's oft-repeated dictum that “A poem should not mean / But be.”17 MacLeish of course should not be taken at his word, since it is doubtful that poetry could ever get on entirely without ideas and more doubtful still that it would be better if it did. In any case, the difficulty to my mind, and I think to Birney's, is not so much with ideas in poetry as with readers who imagine them to be the sole end and use of it. Poems do mean and will likely continue to do so, but they do a great deal more besides. George Whalley recently put the matter this way: “If the business of poetry were no more than to ‘convey’ an identifiable ‘meaning’, poetry would not exist; for the law of economy would forbid the mounting of so intricate a means for such a straightforward end. …”18 Whalley sees that the manic pursuit of a poem's ideas is but another of the tactics we habitually use for avoiding the poem. According to this view, what the poem says (insofar as it is an artistic deployment of language and its related effects) may be something altogether different from what it “means.” To understand what the poem means requires only a measure of competence in the language and enough initiative to read the poem. But to hear what the poem is actually saying demands a mobilization of all our faculties at once; it demands an openness to the poem's magic, a sensitivity to its rhythms, an ear for its music. Reading the poem is really not what is required of us. We can read a repair manual or a statement of account, but a poem must be experienced. This is essentially what the writers of the “New Criticism” have been saying. By their close readings and attention to matters of structure and form, critics such as John Crowe Ransom, I. A. Richards, Allen Tate, and Cleanth Brooks have been arguing that the poem is a much richer and more complex creation than is generally allowed by readers hot on the trail of ideas. Birney's concrete poetry, with its emphasis on the visual and the auditory, is steeped in the tradition of this outlook which originates, for the most part, with Eliot's essay in 1917, wherein Eliot, like Whalley, makes a distinction between what the poet says and what the poem does. The true poem, says Eliot, is not to be found in the words of the poet; it is not in the text of the poem but in the vitality of the creative imagination which fused its several and frequently disparate elements together. For Eliot, poetry is not emotion recollected in tranquility, but “a concentration, and a new thing resulting from the concentration, of a very great number of experiences. …”19 In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The true poem is the poet's mind. …”20

Birney brilliantly captures Emerson's thought in his poem “FIGURE SKATER.” The poem, a criss-cross of black streaks on a white ground, is what the skater / poet leaves behind: the trace and testimony of his art, but not that art itself. The art and the poetry are in the performance, in the making not the thing made. Birney understands, together with Eliot, Whalley, and Ransom, that poetry is more than meaning, more than communication—that it is an art, sister to the other arts, parent of most, and linked to them by the power of creativity. He understands that the poem is not simply a vehicle for an idea, but is a unified arrangement of verbal and visual effects, a synthesis of multiple elements into an imaginative, aesthetic, and moving whole. “For literature,” he writes, “is not watered-down philosophy; it's philosophy which is the water—‘chaste and gentle,’ and the blessings of St. Francis on her, but still water—with which we dilute the original whiskey of poetry” (CW, p. 64). It is for this reason that he brings words and pictures together in his “alphabeings,” and for this reason that he “sounds” his poems, draws them, writes them by hand, or suddenly pitches the line of type up or down or across the page: not to puzzle the reader or confound the critic, but to cause us to bring into play our too little used faculties of sight and hearing and imagination if we are to make anything of the poem at all. In his concrete, Birney is intent on persuading us to pay less attention to the poem's meaning and more to whatever it is that makes poetry uniquely poetry and not philosophy or history or biography. He means to keep us from mistaking the scratches in the ice for the performance. And he does this by giving the eye “as much as it can use to extend the experience of the poem” (CW, p. 72). Conventional poems are too often just food for the mind; in his concrete, Birney seeks to create a poetry that will feed all the senses. His advice to the reader of poetry is simply this:

Perhaps the best way to get full meaning out of a poem is to forget about meaning when you read it. Instead, see with it, smell with it, touch with it. … A poem is a total sensuous experience.21

Birney is asking the reader to immerse himself completely in the poem. Concrete makes full reader involvement unavoidable. Birney's “FIGURE SKATER” does not “make” sense; it is up to the reader to make sense of it, to enter into the poem imaginatively and discover the meaning within it, or better, to create it. Birney supplies only the raw materials in the poem and it is up to the reader to shape that material into the configuration of meaning. Eugen Gomringer, one of the founders of modern concrete, has described the method of his art and the task of the reader confronting it in this way:

The constellation, the word-group, replaces the verse. Instead of syntax it is sufficient to allow two, three, or more words to achieve their full effect. They seem on the surface without interrelation and sprinkled at random by a careless hand, but looked at more closely, they become the center of a field of force and define a certain scope. In finding, selecting and putting down these words [the poet] creates “thought-objects” and leaves the task of association to the reader. …22

The Swiss painter, Paul Klee, has a drawing dated 1918 called “number trees” in which the unconventional deployment of random numbers across the branches of trees serves to dissociate them from their usual symbolic values and emphasizes their identity as things.23 In “poet-tree 1,” Birney does something very much like this with letters, spraying them through the branches of a tree, and leaving us to ponder, admire, or ignore them, as we wish. It is his hope, however, that someday some enterprising individual, tired of waiting for the poet's pronouncement, will harvest those letters from their tree, scramble them into words, and cook up a poem of his own.24

Birney encourages a different kind of involvement, a physical one this time, with “there are delicacies” (what's so BIG ABOUT GREEN?) and “alaska passage” (pnomes jukollages and other stunzas). In the latter poem, he creates a kinetic text (a fancy name for a work whose physical movement contributes something to its meaning) which prompts the reader into a recreation, by the simple act of turning the page, of a feeling and an experience. It is the feeling of steady-state time which oppresses the poem's speaker, whose ship “seems reefed,” and only the topple of trees to the littered shore and the daily ritual of making uneventful entries in the log breaks the monotony of “alaska passage alaska passage alaska pass. …”25 With the handwritten “like an eddy”26 the reader is obliged to turn the text of the poem (or himself) around in a circle in order to read the words that spiral inward towards its centre. The reader who handles the poem in this way is alerted to a novel poetic experience. At the same time, and by the same act, he signals his own message in return: he signals both his interest in the poem and his commitment to it, his willingness to go through the experience in store for him regardless of how unfamiliar it might be. Intrigued and willing, his senses attuned to the unexpected, the reader is prepared to receive the poem freely and unreservedly, to meet it on its own terms. He becomes then a “bright / rock” at the poem's centre, still, alert, and enquiring, equally conscious of the poem's words and the way in which they are set down. He finds that, spiraling inwards, the words become more skewed with respect to one another as the poem proceeds, so that he is able to read quickly at first but is forced to slow down as he goes. The poem's meter accentuates this effect as the opening pyrrhic gives way to the closing spondee. At the last, the reader is brought to a virtual halt while he turns the page a full 180 degrees between “bright” and the final, rooted “ [rock].” There is no arguing with that stone: immoveable and hard, its letters grouped in a tight phalanx about the central “O,” it sits there like some monstrous resolution. Birney's poem, with its unconventional structure, does indeed move in the manner of an eddy, counter to the main current of poetic practise, round and round the fixed “rock” of our trained expectations and deep-seated resistance. The poem's slowing pace suggests a gradual weakening of that resistance in the face of Birney's magic, as the reader is lulled by the eddies of words into an inner stillness. Perhaps that is why Birney has used the same words, though in a different form, and entitled the poem “still,” wherein he braids his words into an enchanted web of sound that catches the reader up until it becomes unclear who is fixed and who does the turning:

rocklike my turn
about your bright eddies
your bright turn eddies
like my rock about you

(R & B, n. pag.)

Read aloud, the poem becomes a chant which, Birney informs me, “may repeat itself several times if the audience seems inclined to stay.”27 Its words weave and mingle until it becomes uncertain whether the rock spawns the eddies or the eddies give form to the rock: is it the poet or the reader who creates the poem's meaning?

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?(28)

The poem begins and ends with stillness, with the rock, the only still point in the swirl of water. Saul Bellow again:

I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm.29

But there would be no still point without the rock, without the reader. Birney seeks to involve the reader in his poems to the point where he becomes not just its audience, but its co-author, a collaborator in the creation of it. That involvement is here both signalled and symbolized by the reader's handling of the poem as he reads it.

At this level, poetry becomes less a thing and more an event, a process. It is not the marks the poet has made on the page, but what happens when a poet, an artist in language, encounters a sympathetic and imaginative reader in a symbiotic interchange such as that between the eddies and the rock of Birney's poem. It is the event of poetry, the occasion of it, that matters to Birney; not the one-way monologue of A. J. M. Smith's “pure poetry” which imagines itself complete and self-sufficient in its solitude, but the two-way dialogue of the vital, intensely human poet whose work is only completed through imaginative intercourse with a reader. Birney has spoken of the poem as an inkdrop spilled from the poet's pen and blotted between two sheets, forming a pattern whose significance depends on both poet and reader.30 Concrete has at least this much in common with Stanley Fish's concept of “literature in the reader,”31 that it acknowledges that the poem's meaning is a function of the reader's experience of it. The result is that the reader wins to a position of unusual importance in the poetic process. Where the poet does not make the poem's meaning but only the poem, the reader becomes indispensable for the completion of the poem. A new responsibility attends the reader's role of collaborator, but a new freedom as well. For concrete permits him, as few other poetries do, the freedom to respond in whatever way he will. The poet's loss in semantic control is the reader's gain in opportunity. Birney's abandonment of punctuation (“Our intricate system of speckles between words …” [SP, p. ix]) in recent years should be seen in this light: not as what Hayden Carruth calls “prosodic fiddle-faddle” (EB, p. 160), but as an attempt to give his autonomous and unpredictable reader, a reader of unique sensibilities, feelings, and ideas, the scope to respond to the poem in a way that is unmistakably his own. By simply replacing a comma with a blank, Birney introduces new possibilities and opens the way to new creations. The mere act of leaving out a final period means that the poem is not over once it is read through; instead, the reader is invited to go on, to extend the poem, re-write it, or use it as he is moved. He might make a film of it, or a painting, carve it in wood, sound it, or sketch it on a mobile as Birney himself has done. The poetry never stops as long as the poem continues to move the reader to respond with creations of his own.32


But what about the “alphabeings,” poems such as “LooN about to laugh,” “Siren,” and “GoDo[UNK]”? How do we begin to talk about them, these irksome doodles, these penciled menageries of squiggles and loops? These works may serve as well as Birney's other concrete poems for a re-education of eye and ear for the fuller, more sensual experience of traditional verse forms, but one feels that they do something more besides. Despite their maddening simplicity, there is a sense about them that they are the expression of something more personal and more fundamental than an ideology, that there is something more meaningful behind them than a conscious design. It was bpNichol, I believe, who first suggested that the significance of these poems lies “… in the gesture not in the result, lies in the importance of this activity to Birney as a member of the human tribe. … The content in the gesture that produced these poems lies at the absolute centre of his concerns as a writing human being.”33 George Bowering, a former student of Birney's, also senses some of the mystery and import of these creations, and his poem, “Earle Birney,” voices both his bewilderment and his esteem:

Why does he keep seeming to know less & less?
Why does he seem to know a little less all
the time? Where does he think he is going?
When I knew less he seemed to know more or
he did know more. He knew enough to write
a book. Now he seems to know less & he
is not so sure about a book …
                                                                                He draws
a picture of a fish & he is fascinated with
his name written down not printed as in a
book but written as by a child, my name …
                    Does the time come when you dont know
about a book but writing your name is
wonderful? …(34)

The apparent simplicity of these poems is a symptom neither of regression nor withdrawal, but represents an active search for a former vitality and power, a search for foundations. I think that what Birney is doing here is reaching for a naïveté that was once the blessing of a simpler, less sophisticated, and possibly wiser man, a man who recognized the sacred identity between the written or spoken name of a thing, and the thing itself. These awkward combinations of pictures and letters, in all their childishness and reverence, look back to a time when, in the words of Dom Sylvester Houédard, “words were treated as friends not slaves—as holy not débris,”35 when writing was a magic art and words, worn as talismans or etched on a censer or shield, had power to charm, ward off spirits, or insure good hunting.36 In the dawn of language, word and reality had arisen together, the dual offspring of a single, overwhelming, spiritual, and emotional encounter of man with his surroundings. They bore each other's stamp and shared a common power and influence.37 In the East, language never entirely lost its visual links to the concrete reality that gave it birth. Though highly stylized, many modern Chinese ideograms still carry vestiges of the original picture-names from which they developed. But, in the West, language severed its visual ties with reality with the invention of the phonic alphabet—a cluster of abstract markings representing sounds rather than things, ideas, or syllables. The final blow came with the advent of the world into the Gutenberg Galaxy. McLuhan's far-reaching study traces the mechanism by which the principles inherent in the phonic code and the use of repeatable, perfectly homogeneous type contributed to the fragmentation of the senses and the reduction of the living world to a mechanical counter of one-thing-at-a-time experience.38 In his own day, Blake witnessed the end of the “concert of the senses” and devoted his creative energies to stirring man from his single vision and Newton sleep.

Birney's “alphabeings” share in the spirit of Blake in trying to restore to post-Cartesian, post-Gutenberg man a unified sensibility and an art that would express the fullness of his being. They are his attempt to put the word, disarmed by abstraction and denuded of feeling, back in touch with the world of sensible things from which it arose and from whence it derives all its power to charm, delight, or impress. For Birney understands, as does every artisan in language, that the word itself is impotent; it is only a symbol, having no life of its own but drawing its every breath from the thing it represents. Words do not stand first for the “ideas in the mind of him that uses them” as Locke supposed, but for things.39 Blake knew this, as did Emerson40 and Walt Whitman. Whitman proved a better philosopher than Locke because he listened first to the urgings of his heart:

A song of the rolling earth, and of words according,
Were you thinking those were the words, those upright lines?
                    those curves, angles, dots?
No, those are not the words, the substantial words are in the
                    ground and sea,
They are in the air, they are in you.
Were you thinking that those were the words, those delicious sounds
                    out of your friends' mouths?
No, the real words are more delicious than they.
Human bodies are words, myriads of words,
(In the best poems re-appears the body, man's or woman's, well-
                    shaped, natural, gay,
Every part able, active, receptive, without shame or the need of
Air, soil, water, fire—those are words(41)

Whitman senses that, cut off from things, words quickly become mere counters, tokens of our mental fictions, the “Words, words, words” that idly populate Hamlet's unprofitable universe. Ernest Fenollosa has observed that “This anemia of modern speech is only too well encouraged by the feeble cohesive force of our phonetic symbols. There is little or nothing in a phonetic word to exhibit the embryonic stages of its growth. It does not bear its metaphor on its face.”42 Birney's picture-poems might be understood as his attempt to reinscribe that metaphor on the porcelain face of language, to rekindle the word, through the marriage of ikon to logos, with the primitive power and feeling of a name:

drawing outlines of birds & beasts in such a way
as to express emotions as well          that is to be
human          the earliest marks put on cavewalls
by men in europe          or on stone cliffs in africa
and canada          are more than picturenames
          they are ways of telling us about how they felt
having to hunt deer and mammoth and wild horses and
bulls          how they feared the brute power          how
they craved the animal beauty …
modern man has become too machine-trapped he
has forgotten how to make those magic picturetraps
          his tenyard curves on the cavern roofs have
become tiny and rigid and linear          the excitement
and fear of the alpha betas have been shoved aside
by the dumb march of the letters          there's no
emotion running out of the shapes in the linotype
          not even a glimpse of the thing or the idea
of it          to see a mammoth on a page of english
we must put seven letters together each in a set shape and
all in an exact order                    and after doing that most
carefully and ingeniously it still doesn't look
like a mammoth                    but it's not the machine's
fault          it does what we tell it(43)

Birney's alphas and betas don't tell us much about hunting deer and mammoth. Significantly, they don't tell us a great deal about the poet either. As in the best haikus, the personality of the poet remains eclipsed by the poem. Yet these works are more intensely personal than anything else Birney has done. There is in them a strange mixture of melancholy and joy, of deep thought and careless play. The poems are children of Birney's fancy, songs of praise, notes of concern, affirmations of kinship, testamonials of love. They are the life of a man involved with words and their music, the sadness of a man who, soaring in imagination, conceives in pictures, yet finds he can make none.44 The concrete poems are not about Birney; they are Birney.

Properly understood, Earle Birney's concrete poems are offerings—not only of self, but offerings, too, of the solid and sensible world of myriad wonders, a world that we never really lost but only somehow ceased to be entirely aware of. I think this is what it comes down to, what the poems “mean.” By their concern with details of line, tone, and figure, Birney's visuals are urging us towards a fuller, more sensual relationship with the poem, but that appeal includes as well, at heart, an invitation to experience at first hand, and with increased intimacy, the world around us. The re-alignment of perspective inherent in the concrete mode is the expression of a spirit of rebellion against an artistic outlook which considers the world a place chiefly notable for the artist's desire to be rid of it. Birney is no poet of the transcendent. Unlike Alastor, in Shelley's Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude, he finds better nourishment in the substantial world of everyday things than in any shadowy quarter of rare thoughts and vanishing ideals that lies beyond it. Both in his concrete and in conventional poems such as “Slug in Woods,” “De-Composition,” “From the Hazel Bough,” and “Aluroid,” Birney celebrates the miracle of something he has found in the world, not outside of it. But let's not be misled, either: Birney has strong affections for what is given, for the world that is there to be looked at and lived in, but not because he has rejected the transcendent. Rather, he recognizes the existence of a higher truth but insists, like Blake, that it is not separate from the world of experience. In his concrete, Birney does not reject spiritual values but finds the spiritual and the eternal to be none other than the temporal and the temporary.

Like the cave-drawings of our ancestors, Birney's picture-poems tell us what it is like to be human. What makes the description so interesting is that it is in terms of those qualities which identify us as members of the world community, rather than as aliens to it. To see infinity in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour is above all to see ourselves as we are: not to be merely in a relationship with Nature, but to be directly of her. I think that Birney's concrete poems are somehow expressions of this attitude. Birney writes poetry in order to establish a community gathered together in imaginative apprehension of poetic art, but his efforts contain the implicit assumption of such a community very much at home in the world of which it is a part.


  1. The Creative Writer (Toronto: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1966), p. 79. All further references to this work (CW) appear in the text.

  2. “Poets and Painters: Rivals or Partners,” Canadian Art, 14 (1957), 150.

  3. “Poets and Painters,” p. 149.

  4. “Canada Council,” in The Collected Poems of Earle Birney, 2 vols. (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1975), II, 158. Unless otherwise indicated, all further references to Birney's poetry are to this work and appear in the text.

  5. “Review of Rag & Bone Shop,” in Earle Birney, ed. and introd. Bruce Nesbitt, Critical Views on Canadian Writers, No. 9 (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1974), p. 179. All further references to this work (EB) appear in the text.

  6. “Two Notes on Poetic Rhythms,” Language and Style, 10 (1977), 74.

  7. Letter received from Earle Birney, 14 April 1979.

  8. “The Musical Foundations of Verse,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 20 (1921), 227.

  9. Letter received from Earle Birney, 14 April 1979.

  10. C.B.C. Publications, 1966 (recording).

  11. “Preface,” in Selected Poems 1940-1966 (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1966), p. xi. All further references to this work (SP) appear in the text.

  12. Daniel 5.25.

  13. Earle Birney, “The Bear on the Delhi Road,” CP, II, 37.

  14. Earle Birney, “A Walk in Kyoto,” CP, II, 33.

  15. “Poem Objects,” Partisan Review, 40 (1973), 100.

  16. “The Writer as Moralist,” The Atlantic Monthly, March 1963, p. 62.

  17. Archibald MacLeish, “Ars Poetica,” in The Human Season: Selected Poems 1926-1972 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972), p. 142.

  18. “Some Complex Functions of Language,” The Structurist, No. 12 (1972-73), p. 10.

  19. T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in Critical Theory Since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), p. 787.

  20. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays: First Series, Vol. II of The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, gen. ed. and introd. Joseph Slater (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap of Harvard Univ. Press, 1979), p. 11.

  21. The Cow Jumped Over the Moon: The Writing and Reading of Poetry (Toronto: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972), p. 73.

  22. Gomringer, in An Anthology of concrete poetry, ed. Emmett Williams (New York: Something Else, 1967), n. pag.

  23. See James Smith Pierce, “Pictographs, Ideograms, and Alphabets in the Work of Paul Klee,” Journal of Typographic Research, 1, No. 3 (July 1967), 225.

  24. One recipe (the author's) is this: “POETRY is a sort of TRIP something that says YES ITS maybe HELL TO TRY doing & get LOST in POESIE with POE & POSIES & HOLIES & HOLLIES but STILL YES I can TRY LIke HELL TO RISE THRu TEARS & PISS & SHIT TO SHELLY & POETRY etc etc.” Letter received from Earle Birney, 14 April 1979.

  25. The comparison of the poem's form to a ship's log is a happy one. Some time after I had written this, Birney advised me that “… this making began with my own seaman's diary the summer i worked my passage as a deckhand from Port Alberni to Yorkshire.” Letter received from Earle Birney, 14 April 1979.

  26. “like an eddy,” in Rag & Bone Shop (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1971), n. pag. All further references to this work (R & B) appear in the text.

  27. Letter received from Earle Birney, 14 April 1979.

  28. “Among School Children,” in W. B. Yeats: Selected Poetry, ed. and introd. A. Norman Jeffares (London: Macmillan, 1974), p. 130.

  29. Gordon Lloyd Harper, “Saul Bellow” in Saul Bellow: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Earl Rovit (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975), p. 14.

  30. Letter received from Earle Birney, 14 April 1979.

  31. Stanley Fish, “Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics,” in his Self-Consuming Artifacts (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1972). This essay forms the Appendix to the book.

  32. Birney adds, “you might say that, for me, a poem ‘is over’—in its printed form—when the eye encounters, after space, a new title. It has always been important to me to use titles—consequently, final punctuation becomes superfluous.” Letter received from Earle Birney, 14 April 1979.

  33. “Some Notes on Earle Birney's ‘Solemn Doodles,’” Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 9 (Winter 1977-78), p. 110.

  34. George Bowering, “Earle Birney,” in Curious (Toronto: Coach House, 1973), n. pag.

  35. “Concrete Poetry & Ian Hamilton Finlay,” Typographica, 8 (Dec. 1963), 47.

  36. See Berjouhi Bowler, The Word As Image (London: Studio Vista, 1970).

  37. See Ernst Cassirer's account of the origins of language in Language and Myth, trans. Susanne K. Langer (New York: Harper, 1946), pp. 88-89.

  38. Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1962).

  39. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, abridged and ed. A. S. Pringle-Pattison (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1924), p. 225.

  40. “It does not need that a poem should be long. Every word was once a poem.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet” [1844], in Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. William H. Gilman (New York: New American Library, 1965), p. 314.

  41. Walt Whitman, “A Song of the Rolling Earth,” in Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition, ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley, The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1965), pp. 219-20.

  42. Ernest Fenollosa, “The Chinese Written Character As a Medium for Poetry,” in The Instigations of Ezra Pound, ed. Ezra Pound (Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries, 1967), p. 379.

  43. Earle Birney, in Earle Birney, bill bissett, Judith Copithorne, and Andrew Suknaski, Four Parts Sand (Ottawa: Oberon, 1972), n. pag.

  44. In discussion, Mr. Birney expressed to me the peculiar urgency which sometimes possessed him to turn his ideas, which were usually intensely visual, into pictures. But the chain of command between his mind's eye and his hand was in his case lamentably ineffective, so that he found himself unable to make any but the most elementary sketches. (Personal interview with Earle Birney, 25 July 1978.)

Lionel Kearns (essay date summer 1983)

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SOURCE: Kearns, Lionel. “Birney's Bear.” Canadian Literature, no. 97 (summer 1983): 172-75.

[In the following essay, Kearns offers an analysis of Birney's poem, “Bear on the Delhi Road.”]

Earle Birney's “Bear on the Delhi Road”1 has long been a favourite poem of mine. It has also been a source of some anxiety and frustration, because I have never been able to understand it completely. I know it as a series of words; I know it as a structure of images and statement; I carry it in my head and use it to relate to that world out there that surrounds this consciousness in here that I call me. The poem says something to me that is very profound and very important, but I have always failed to pin it down and explain exactly what that something is. At least that has been the situation until now. Recently I have come upon an article by anthropologist Robin Ridington2 that seems to account for my fascination with Birney's poem, and to illuminate the basic truth that it expresses. Before dealing with Ridington's ideas, however, I would like to discuss the poem, setting out my insights and responses up to the point at which I used to become overwhelmed and bewildered.

Birney tells us that the poem developed from an experience he had while travelling through India in 1958. On the road outside Srinagar, he came upon a curious sight: two men with a wild bear. Although his encounter with the trio was momentary, the experience was vivid and unforgettable. The significance of the event seemed unquestionable but also ungraspable, and so the image stayed in Birney's mind for more than a year before he was able to exorcise it by putting it into the poem that we know today.3 For Birney, this bear and these men stood for some basic relationship between man and nature, for some fundamental process in which we, as civilized and cultural beings, are involved.

Birney begins the poem by setting up the scene of the men and the bear on the road, the opening line presenting two important points of reference:

Unreal          tall as a myth
by the road the Himalayan bear
is beating the brilliant air
with his crooked arms

Besides rendering an effective visual image of the bear, the words are loaded with information. The bear, exaggerated in stature and somewhat incredible in this particular circumstance, is characterized as “unreal” and compared to a “myth.” The two words are placed strategically at either end of the first line. They are, in fact, the poles of the axis on which the poem will turn. However, the question arises as to why these terms apply to this particular bear, who is certainly real enough to make his captors lively.

About him two men          bare
spindly as locusts          leap

The figures of speech tend to humanize the animal, who has “arms,” and to dehumanize the men, by comparing them to spindles and insects. There seems to be some kind of reversal going on, or is it an exchange? Birney fills in more details of the scene:

One pulls on a ring
in the great soft nose          His mate
flicks          flicks with a stick
up at the rolling eyes.

It is not a case of torture but of training, as the poem goes on to point out.

They have not led him here
down from the fabulous hills
to this bald alien plain
and the clamorous world          to kill
but simply to teach him to dance.

The adjectives set up a pattern of contrast between the bear's natural home, the hills, which are now characterized as “fabulous,” and the “clamorous world” of men, which happens to be the bald plain that is alien not only to the bear but to his keepers, who have come here for the purpose of exploiting the animal by turning him into a performer and then putting him on display.

They are peaceful both          these spare
men of Kashmir          and the bear
alive is their living          too
If          far on the Delhi way
around him galvanic they dance
it is merely to wear          wear
from his shaggy body the tranced
wish forever to stay
only an ambling bear
four-footed in berries.

The relationship between men and bear is becoming more detailed and complex. In order to render the bear amenable and marketable, the men must wear him down. The word “galvanic,” as applied to the dancing men, is the key to the central metaphor of the poem. The word is derived from the name of the eighteenth-century inventor of the electric cell, Luigi Galvani, who demonstrated the flow of electricity in a circuit by attaching frog legs to a wire between zinc and copper electrodes in an electrolite solution of sulfuric acid. As the chemical action took place in the cell, the current in the wires animated the frog legs. I remember in my high school physics class we did the same experiment, but used a galvanometer in place of the frog legs. It is Galvani's primitive model, however, that underlies the poem's image of dancing men and rearing bear. The metaphoric figure is composed of two corresponding images. On one hand we have the allusion to Galvani's electric cell, its frog legs dancing in response to the current that is flowing through the wire. On the other hand there is the poem's image of two men dancing around a bear, connected to him by a rope and a stick. The animation of the men is powered both literally and figuratively by the energy of the bear. The frog legs and the men will dance until they have exhausted the charge in their respective energy cells. In the case of the bear, this charge is his energetic determination to remain a natural, wild bear. Depletion of this energy will result in the bear's domestication, after which the men will be in control and the bear will dance for them. Of course, their aim is to reduce and channel the bear's energy rather than to use it up completely. As the poem mentions, a dead bear will not provide them with a livelihood.

The poem would present few problems if it were to end at this point, but it goes on to comment once again on the men's activity and the process in which they are involved:

It is no more joyous for them
in this hot dust to prance
out of reach of the praying claws
sharpened to paw for ants
in the shadows of deodars.

Birney then presents us with the interpreting statement to which the poem has been leading:

It is not easy to free
myth from reality
or rear this fellow up
to lurch          lurch with them
in the tranced dancing of men.

It was here that my comprehension of the poem habitually faltered. I could appreciate the irony that both the natural wish of the bear and the civilized dancing of men are characterized as “tranced.” I could also understand that the bear, as a finished product ready for circus tents or carnival lots of Delhi, would at best be able to “lurch” in spastic parody of human locomotion. However, I was baffled by the second equation that the poem draws up. Although I could glimpse some of the implications of the metaphor, I could not fully appreciate the correspondence between the attempt to “free / myth from reality” and the effort to “rear this fellow up,” using either or both senses of the verb “rear.” Clearly, my problem was in comprehending the meaning of the two abstract terms, “myth” and “reality,” in the concrete context of the poem.

In his paper, “Monsters and the Anthropologist's Reality,” Robin Ridington discusses the relationship between myth and reality as he interprets his experience of encountering the culture and traditions of the Athabaskan Dunne-za Indians of the Peace River area. The problem that he sets out to explain is the existence of the dual and conflicting realities of the Dunne-za and himself.

In Dunne-za tradition, as in the traditions of many other North American native cultures, there was a time when the relations between people and animals were reversed. Giant animals that spoke and had culture hunted humans, who were their game. In these stories about this time, terms normally used to describe animals were applied to people, and human terms were used for the giant animals.4

To the Dunne-za, traditional stories, which we would classify as myths, are not outside nature or human experience. The giant animals that characterize these stories now lie buried in the earth, giving shape to the various contours of the landscape and exerting an influence on the lives of people.

When Dunne-za children are sent into the bush to obtain “supernatural power” … they experience directly the power of the giant animals. It is from these giant animals of mythic times that the Dunne-za acquire the powers that enable them to perform competently as adult members of their society. The giant animals are encountered directly by every normal person at the time of the childhood vision quest experience, and they remain a constant presence behind the appearance of everyday reality. Through the vision quest people learn to exert a controlling influence over the animals of the real world.5

Ridington goes on to point out that the giant animals “are intelligible transformations of the natural animals upon which the people's lives depend.” The Dunne-za “live by making contact with animals in the bush and transforming them into cultural resources, such as food and clothing.” In their myths, “where human-like animals overcome animal-like humans,” the pattern is reversed, until Saya, the culture-hero-transformer, sets things right.6 Just as the mythic events are interpretations of the Dunne-za hunting and trapping activities, their day-to-day activities are concrete expressions of their underlying myths. The unity of this experience is fundamental to their traditional world. The giant animals, therefore, are not a separate, occult, reality, but rather an essential component of the context of Dunne-za life.

The function of myth as Ridington has explained it here is similar in any culture. Myths reiterate and stabilize our historical and traditional relationship with the world as we experience it. In the Dunne-za situation there is no need to “free myth from reality,” because the categories are functionally inseparable; myth is part of reality. In a less integrated culture, such as our own, myth has a more ambiguous status. We can, and frequently do, identify and study it as an isolated form. Nevertheless, even for us there are certain rudimentary mythic patterns that remain a presence behind our everyday lives. Many of our own public rituals, the bull-fight, the rodeo, and the circus, for example, act out the residual myth of man's triumph over, and domestication of, the wild beasts. This fact accounts for the lasting appeal of these forms of entertainment and the fascination Birney had with the stark example of the ritual which was being prepared once more at the side of the Delhi Road.

Let us consider what is going on in the poem in the light of Ridington's illumination. The task that the men have laid out for themselves involves transforming a natural item, “an ambling bear / four-footed in berries,” into a commercial product, the humanoid dancing bear from which they will eventually make their living. At the same time this task also involves freeing myth from reality in the sense of transforming a real bear into a mythic entity: the trained bear as symbol of man's technical domination of nature. The two transformations are parallel and mutually dependent: one motivates the process, whereas the other interprets it. Unlike the Dunne-za, we, as analytic and specialized beings, have developed the technique of separating the real and the mythic here on this bare and alien plain of our clamorous civilization. Birney's poem gives us a rare perspective on this separation and on the nature of the mythmaking process itself. The experience of comprehending the poem is the experience of standing back to witness a parody of our own technological competence. That is why the poem is a masterpiece. In its metaphor of the bear and the electric cell, in its vivid and evocative imagery of the insect-like men and their exaggerated charge, in its sonorous and ironic play of words, the poem illustrates and comments on the mysterious exchange which is basic to the history of civilization: man's simultaneous exploitation of nature and creation of myth. Technological man's involvement in this process parallels that of the Dunne-za, though the outcome of our involvement is much less inspiring than theirs. Birney, of course, is not endorsing the process or the particular myth with which the poem is concerned. He is merely laying it bare.

We are the men on the Delhi Road, even as we sit in our warm houses and turn on the television or fill our cars with gasoline and drive to the movies. Perhaps we are about to watch a bear in a Walt Disney cartoon. Anyone for a dance or a trance?


  1. Ghost in the Wheels: Selected Poems (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1977), p. 75.

  2. “Monsters and the Anthropologist's Reality,” in Man-like Monsters on Trial: Early Records and Modern Evidence, eds. Margorie Halpin and Martin Ames (Vancouver and London: Univ. of British Columbia Press, 1980), pp. 172-86.

  3. Earle Birney commenting on the poem at various public readings, and in conversation with the author.

  4. Ridington, “Monsters,” p. 173.

  5. Ridington, p. 173.

  6. Ridington, pp. 173-74.

David Latham (essay date fall/winter 1987)

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SOURCE: Latham, David. “From the Hazel Bough of Yeats: Birney's Masterpiece.” Canadian Poetry, no. 21 (fall/winter 1987): 52-8.

[In the following essay, Latham discusses “From the Hazel Bough,” a poem once described by Birney as the work of his own that he thought most closely approached the level of a masterpiece.]

“Have you ever written a masterpiece?” I first heard this question asked when I attended a poetry reading during my first year at university fifteen years ago. The two readers that evening were Earle Birney and Ralph Gustafson, and after they had finished their readings, the student beside me asked Gustafson the question I thought was so naive. When Gustafson snapped back, “Yes, the one about the apple”1, I laughed aloud to show him that I recognized the sarcasm behind his quick reply. When he turned to me in surprise, I realized that he had been serious.

A few years later, I was watching Earle Birney being interviewed on television.2 Towards the end of the programme, the interviewer leaned forward and earnestly asked if Birney had ever written a masterpiece, something he considered a perfect poem. Having learned my lesson, I too leaned forward, ready to take the question and the answer seriously. Birney first gave the conventionally modest denial, that “perfection is not something that can be achieved, but something to strive towards”. Then he added that his favourite poem, the closest he's come to composing a masterpiece, is a short lyric entitled “From the Hazel Bough”:

I met a lady
                    on a lazy street
hazel eyes
                    and little plush feet
her legs swam by
                    like lovely trout
eyes were trees
                    where boys leant out
hands in the dark and
                    a river side
round breasts rising
                    with the finger's tide
she was plump as a finch
                    and live as a salmon
gay as silk and
                    proud as a Brahmin
we winked when we met
                    and laughed when we parted
never took time
                    to be brokenhearted
but no man sees
                    where the trout lie now
or what leans out
                    from the hazel bough

As Birney read the poem aloud, I wondered why he considered this one as his masterpiece. When we read the soaring Dylan Thomas-like lines of his most popular poem (“David and I that summer cut trails …”) and then read “From the Hazel Bough” to the rhythm of what Birney claims is its inspiration—the railway song “Casey Jones”—this poem can read like six silly stanzas of rhyme without reason.

Birney's choice of “From the Hazel Bough” was no momentary decision. When John Robert Colombo in 1969 asked sixty poets to choose from their own poetry one favourite poem with a paragraph to explain that preference, Earle Birney chose “From the Hazel Bough” with the following explanation: “This one is short and easy to read and write / it managed its own mysteries including an open rhythm which so far has prompted 5 wildly different pieces of music / i keep feeling it's still just ‘casey jones’”3. Three years later, in his critical study of the Writing and Reading of Poetry, Birney reconfirmed this choice:

I wrote all but the final stanza of this poem in my head one night, while I was still in military hospital in Toronto. The nub of what I have to say about “From the Hazel Bough” is available in John Robert Colombo's How Do I Love Thee, a collection of poets' own favourites with their reasons for choices. …

Although the basic rhythm was suggested to me quite irrelevantly by ‘Casey Jones,’ it's been possible for composers to set it to their own sort of music, each wildly different. … But some have found the poem of no interest; the author of a recent 128-page study of my work fails even to mention “From the Hazel Bough”4.

In a cassette recording of a reading of his poetry, Birney concludes with “From the Hazel Bough”, introducing the poem with the following words:

I suppose all poems, all art, have to do with the most elemental theme of being born and living and dying. The thing that links it all is love because we're born out of love—of somebody else's loving—and we come into love, and we die to make room for the continuation of love. Maybe that is something behind the poem I'm going to finish with.5

The only critic who looks closely at “From the Hazel Bough” is Peter Aichinger. He calls it a “cryptic love poem” (p. 43) “whose obscurity and ambiguity may be a deliberate attempt to conceal Birney's real attitude toward the relationships between men and women” (p. 73). The poem

may be full of images of life, beauty, and vigour, the lively meter may suggest the joy and freshness of youth, and the penultimate stanza may claim a jolly, flirtatious cavalier attitude toward love [the fifth stanza is quoted] but the last stanza shifts abruptly to a sad reflection upon death and the loss of love; ever at the latter end of joy comes woe.6

What Birney has said about “Mappemounde”, a poem written during that same period of convalescence when he wrote “From the Hazel Bough” in 1945, applies to both poems and aptly summarizes Aichinger's analysis: the poem is an “ironic comment, in the style of Hardy, upon the transitory nature of love and faithfulness”7.

Neither Birney nor his critics mention the poem that “From the Hazel Bough” is most comparable with: W. B. Yeats' “The Song of Wandering Aengus”:

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossoms in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Yeats tells the haunting story of an old man who recalls how long ago he was compelled by a fire in his head to go out to cut a wand for fishing. He catches a silver trout which is then transformed into a vision of a glimmering girl. His quest will be to find this girl who called his name before vanishing.

In Yeats' poem we find not only the source of Birney's imagery—his hazel bough in Yeats' hazel wood and hazel wand, his trout in Yeats' silver trout, his river in Yeats' stream—but we find the same dialectical structure. Yeats contrasts the past with the present, the inner with the outer, the ethereal with the earthly, the imaginative with the natural. A break in the middle of each stanza (signalled by a semi-colon or colon) underlines the shift from the earthly and physical to the mysterious and magical, from the concrete world of the particular to the abstract world of the universal. Birney similarly contrasts then with now, youth with age, love with memory. Yeats' silver apples of the moon and golden apples of the sun may have their corresponding imagery in the lunar tides that arouse the sun-rising breasts in Birney's poem. (Birney's treatment of the transformation theme is more immediate, as the lady and the landscape metaphorically merge.) But obscure allusions account for neither the meaning nor the importance of the poem. What Birney's poem owes most to Yeats is its genre. And it is in this generic context that the silver and golden apples of the moon and sun are most relevant to Birney's poem.

“The Song of Wandering Aengus” belongs to the Gaelic genre known as the aisling.8 The word means a vision or a dream; and the vision the poet sees is the spirit of Ireland as a beautiful woman. The aisling then is a folksong in which a female figure serves as a metaphor for the singer's homeland, or what in this context we might more aptly call the motherland.

Yeats explains that “The Song of Wandering Aengus” was “suggested to me by a Green folksong; but the folk belief of Greece is very like that of Ireland, and I certainly thought, when I wrote it, of Ireland, and of the spirits that are in Ireland”9. Yeats' interest in reviving Irish culture through Celtic mythology began with quixotic ambitions to create a Celtic counterpart to the Greek Arcadia and Biblical Eden. In this poem, the fisherman, the silver trout, and the hazel bough are translated into Aengus, Ireland, and the Tree of Knowledge. Once he's envisioned the ideal, he is no longer content with reality; thus, metaphorically fallen from paradise, Aengus becomes a lost wanderer. Baudelaire contends that “any lyric poet, by his very nature, inevitably brings about a return toward the lost Eden”10. Exiled from the garden, Yeats and Aengus seek return not to the godly father but to the motherland of home.

In an essay published in 1904, Yeats suggests the need to establish a relationship between personal and cultural tradition:

Old writers had an admirable symbolism that attributed certain energies to the influence of the sun, and certain others to the lunar influence. To lunar influence belong all thoughts and emotions that were created by the community, by the common people, by nobody knows who, and to the sun all that came from the high disciplined or individual kingly mind. I myself imagine a marriage of the sun and moon in the arts I take most pleasure in; and now bride and bridegroom but exchange, as it were, full cups of gold and silver, and now they are one in a mystical embrace.11

Turning from this ideal principle to examine its practice in the poem, we see now that the silver and golden apples of the moon and the sun represent the marriage of the bride and bridegroom of poetic inspiration: the common impulse engaged in the communal folk tradition is wedded to the kingly soul engaged in the individual introspective mind. Yeats describes the result of this marriage, in a letter to Dora Sigerson (1899) in which he defines his favourite kind of poetry:

I think a kind of half ballad, half lyric … is the kind of poem I like best myself—a ballad that gradually lifts … from circumstantial to purely lyrical writing … I only learnt that slowly and used to be content to tell stories. … One must always have lyric emotion or some revelation of beauty.12

All this generic background is unnecessary for answering most questions about Birney's poem: What do the trout signify? The lady's legs. What does the hazel bough signify? The lady's eyes, whose charm enchants the boys. Where is the lady now? If no man sees where her legs are laid out, then she may be dead, or at least unloved and forgotten.

But, if we ask ourselves who the lady is, we get a different answer than when we consider the genre of the poem, if indeed, like Yeats's poem, Birney's “From the Hazel Bough” is an aisling. The poem first appeared in Birney's 1948 volume of poems entitled Strait of Anian. The title refers to the alleged Northwest passage which would enable sailors to bypass cold Canada in order to reach the more worthwhile destination of India. Birney quotes as his epigraph to the volume a 1594 account of Sir Francis Drake's first voyage to the Indies:

Sir Francis himself (as I have heard) was of very good will to have sailed still more Northward hoping to find passage through the narrow sea Anian … and so from thence to have taken his course Northeast, and so to retourn … into England, but his Mariners finding the coast of Nova Albion to be very cold, had no good will to sayle any further Northward.13

The collection begins with a poem entitled “Atlantic Door” and concludes with one entitled “Pacific Door”. In between, it moves through poems dealing with the Maritimes, Quebec, Montreal, to Toronto in the centre, and then out to the prairies and the Rockies. The two Toronto poems are “The Ebb Begins from Dream”, which refers to such regions of the city as Rosedale, Forest Hill, and the Danforth; and “From the Hazel Bough”, which vaguely refers to Hazelton Avenue in the Yorkville neighbourhood. Birney identifies the neighbourhood when he introduces “From the Hazel Bough” in his recorded reading: “My daily work took me through Yorkville and Cumberland—slum streets before the hippies”14.

Some of the companion poems in this journey across the country speak of Canada as a girl or as a high school adolescent. In “Transcontinental” the land is “a great green girl grown sick / with man—sick with the likes of us?” Her toes are soaked in seaports, her ankles rashed with stubble, her lakeblue eyes scummed by tugboats:

She is too big and strong perhaps to die
of this disease but she grows quickly old
this lady old with us—
nor have we any antibodies for her aid
except our own.(15)

Thus when we ask who is this lady described so in terms of the landscape, we should answer that she is a personification of Canada. As Yeats was mythologizing Ireland, Birney is mythologizing Canada. But why is the encounter so brief? The answer to that question is suggested in the title of the collection, Strait of Anian, the ironic reference to the colonial mentality which leaves us thinking of ourselves not as natives proud of our homeland, but as immigrants passing through. When the desired gaiety and pride is discovered in the local, it sets us dreaming metaphors of the exotic (ll. 15-16). The subtitle of another companion poem—“Can. Lit.”—is a distortion of the maple leaf forever: “them able to leave her ever”16. Birney's revisions of the later editions of “From the Hazel Bough”—his changing the “He” to “I” and “they” to “we” (“I met a lady”)—shifts our attention to the overshadowed other subject of the poem: not the lady, but the persona; not Canada, but the Canadian. “From the Hazel Bough” presents the Canadian as a tourist in a land to which he first felt little commitment. Now at last he is beginning to recognize with regret his lack of roots in his own land.

In an essay entitled “Unhiding the Hidden”, Robert Kroetsch quotes Martin Heidegger: “‘Roman thought takes over the Greek words without a corresponding, equally authentic experience of what they say’. … The rootlessness of Western thought begins with this translation”. Kroetsch then quotes the narrator of Margaret Atwood's Surfacing as epitomizing “this very Canadian predicament”: “Now we're on my home ground foreign territory”17. As Yeats turned a Greek folk song into a Celtic myth with a fairyland setting, Birney turns Yeats' Celtic song into a Canadian myth with the treelined, sidewalked neighbourhood of Hazelton Avenue bounded by the Atlantic tides and Pacific salmon.

What makes “From the Hazel Bough” exceptional is its ability to capture the spirit of the country while transcending its patriotic intention to do so. That is to say, the aisling does not limit the universality of the poem; “From the Hazel Bough” may be enriched by the patriotic subtext of Birney's exploration of Canada, but, like Yeats' poem, is in no way dependent on it. Not a closed work (however much the last line returns us to the title), it may still be described best as an elegiac lyric about the transitory nature of life, love, and loyalty. And yet, if we were to transpose the two poems, we would discover immediately that Yeats' fairyland no more suits Canada than Birney's transcontinental neighbourhood suits Ireland. A demonstration of his famous conclusion to “Can. Lit.”—“it's only by our lack of ghosts / we're haunted”—“From the Hazel Bough” is for Canadians as haunting an aisling as any ever written.


  1. “Apple,” in Sift in an Hourglass (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1966), 49.

  2. “The Education of Mike McManus” (TV Ontario, 1976), 30 min.

  3. John Robert Colombo, How Do I Love Thee: Sixty Poets of Canada Select and Introduce Their Favourite Poems from Their Own Work (Edmonton: Hurtig, 1970), 6.

  4. The Cow Jumped Over the Moon: The Writing and Reading of Poetry (Toronto: Holt, Rinehart, 1972), 87-8. Birney is referring to Frank Davey whose Earle Birney (Toronto: Copp Clark, 1971) ignores “From the Hazel Bough”.

  5. Earle Birney (Toronto: High Barnet Cassettes, 1979), 60 min.

  6. Peter Aichinger, Earle Birney (Boston: Twayne, 1979), 76.

  7. Aichinger, 78.

  8. Daniel Corkery discusses the aisling in The Hidden Ireland: A Study of the Gaelic Munster in the Eighteenth Century (Dublin: Gill, 1925), 28-9. Birney's and Yeats's imagery is similar to that of Seamus Heaney's two recent aislings, “A Hazel Stick for Catherine Ann” and “An Aisling in the Burren”, in Station Island (London: Faber, 1984), 42, 47.

  9. The Variorum Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats, ed. Peter Allt and Russell Alspach (London: Macmillan, 1957), 806.

  10. The translation is from Barbara Johnson's analysis of Baudelaire's “Invitation au voyage”: “To love and die / In the land that resembles you.” See her Critical Difference (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1980), 23-9. Comparisons of the lady as land, the person as place, are found as well in popular rock music: “I know a place—I'll Take You There” (The Staple Singers, 1972) and “The name of the place is I Like It Like That” (Chris Kenner, 1961). The aisling has much to do with exploring the locations of desire: how our nostalgia for the particular motherland of home may be more powerful than our anticipation of the abstract fatherly god.

  11. “Gods and Fighting Men,” in Explorations (London: Macmillan, 1962), 24.

  12. The Letters of W. B. Yeats, ed. Allan Wade (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954), 322.

  13. Strait of Anian: Selected Poems of Earle Birney (Toronto: Ryerson, 1948), ii.

  14. Earle Birney (High Barnet Cassettes).

  15. “Transcontinental” (Collected Poems, I, 124) was originally entitled “New Brunswick” in Strait of Anian.

  16. “Can. Lit.” was not grouped with the Anian poems until the Collected Poems (1975).

  17. “Unhiding the Hidden: Recent Canadian Fiction,” Journal of Canadian Fiction, 3 (1974), 43.

Larry McDonald (essay date spring 1995)

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SOURCE: McDonald, Larry. “‘Cortés and All Dat Crap’: Earle Birney's Travel Poetry.” Wascana Review of Contemporary Poetry and Short Fiction 30, no. 1 (spring 1995): 33-48.

[In the following essay, McDonald examines theme, structure, and perspective in Birney's travel poetry, noting that he was among the first literary figures to champion cultural diversity and the disadvantages of social and economic inequity worldwide.]

Between 1955 and 1962, at a time when few poets were interested in different cultures or marginalized voices, Earle Birney wrote almost exclusively about their oppression by the North American culture to which he himself belonged. He wrote to foster the introduction of colonized cultures into Canadian consciousness, and he wrote to argue for their political and economic liberation.

What is most impressive and invaluable about his travel poetry, which comprises by far the bulk of Volume 2 of his Collected Poems, is that his writing is centrally concerned with the historical evolution of imperialism in the many cultures that it explores, and equally alert to its contemporary manifestations. That is, long before the rest of the poetic/academic community had been sensitized and recruited to the cause of cultural plurality and anti-imperialism, indeed at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, Birney was writing poetry that took as its subject matter the unequal distribution of social and economic power among classes, races and nations. (Like many a leftist, he is not so strong on the gender question.)

The many poems occasioned by Birney's travels through Mexico, the Carribean, South America, Asia and the South Pacific have not gone unremarked; on the contrary, they are widely anthologized and generally praised as among the best he ever wrote (see Woodcock 93). What has gone largely unnoticed, however, is the ideological content of these poems. For the most part, critics have instead celebrated the poetry of this period for marking a stylistic break with his previous poetry. In Frank Davey's critical narrative of “Birney's development from a British-oriented to a North American-oriented poet” (Earle Birney 38), for example, Birney's poetry up until Ice Cod Bell or Stone (1962) is damned for being “Anglophile and elitist, its point of view arrogantly authoritative, paternalistic—as if his working-class background, his Trotskyist egalitarianism had been defeated by the academic discourse of authority” (Reading 20). Apparently all this changed with the publication in 1962 of Ice Cod Bell or Stone. Davey recollects that this volume had been, for him, “a political book” because “in its return to first-person narration and colloquial language it had affirmed both the inevitable relativity of human perspective and the intuitive working-class preference for the oral over the written” (Reading 20). Les McLeod also argues that “a stylistic change was under way” in these poems, which “are more relaxed and conversational in tone” (138). Despite the attention they pay to the ideological implications of Birney's shift to a style that is more colloquial, neither Davey nor McLeod has anything to say about the explicit ideological content of the poetry's critique of imperialism and capitalism.

George Woodcock, in his article on Birney as a modern incarnation of the Old English poets whose journeys are recorded in poems like The Wanderer or The Seafarer, focusses on Birney's “earthly journeying as a metaphor for the inner journey” (85). McLeod is similarly interested in the travel poems as projections of Birney's inner life. According to this reading, the foreign locales are important as landscapes that provoke a conflict between Birney's two selves. “This dichotomy between Birney's two selves,” McLeod suggests, “is the dramatic representation of his alienation, and this alienation is the source of his need to seek an outward link” (140). In Paul West's contemporary review of Ice Cod Bell or Stone, the critical focus is also fixed on Birney's progress as artist. Alluding to Byron's dictum that the exotic “makes more impact for less work,” West writes of the foreign cultures in Birney's poems as if they were important only as material for the practice of poetic technique: “In other words,” he summarizes, “Birney got a start from the exotic and redeemed himself by displaying so magnificent a technique that we know he never needs it anyways” (125).

Academic response to Birney's travel poems, then, has concentrated primarily on their significance to critical narratives of the poet's formal progress in matters of voice, style and technique, or to narratives of the modern artist's inner journey through political landscapes that occasion feelings of alienation, and through social landscapes whose poetic meanings are apparently mythic. (For samples of the widespread tendency of Birney criticism to privilege the “deep” discourse of myth over the “shallow” discourse of social relations, see Aichinger, Robillard, West, and Davey.) Very little has been written about the travel poems as a distinct form of literary expression, as an ideologically charged record of a writer's encounter with foreign cultures on the margins of empire.1 There is an irony here. If, as I believe, Birney has consciously written into his poems the history, language, politics, power relations and cultural voices of the places he visited, then the critical representation of his poems has worked to unwrite them. That is, even if in Birney's case travel writing succeeds in establishing for its home audience the presence and integrity of other cultures with complex social institutions and artistic achievements, it is quite possible that much Birney criticism has worked to empty the poems of this material “otherness” by directing our attention away from it, by writing about the poems as if the ideological terms according to which they enframe and construct other cultures were not a matter of important critical interest.

My own appreciation of Birney's achievement in this regard was much enhanced by a reading of two recent and altogether excellent books on travel writing. The first, published in 1992, is Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation by Mary Louise Pratt (who, incidentally, confesses to being “an Anglo-Canadian expatriate”). The second, published in 1993, is The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing, and Imperial Administration by David Spurr. What both books make abundantly clear is that travel writing has almost always served the ideological interests of the imperial centres in the ways that it produces the “rest of the world” for its readership. Travel writers typically encouraged and justified the invasion of a foreign territory, for instance, by constituting it “as a primal world of nature, an unclaimed and timeless space occupied by plants and creatures (some of them human), but not organized by societies and economies; a world whose only history was the one about to begin” (Pratt 126). In addition to the erasure of history and social organization, travel writing has worked in many ways to distort or occlude the reality of its foreign subject. The imperial eye, as Pratt demonstrates, tends to essentialize all that it sees: “One needed only to see a person at rest to bear witness … to the trait of idleness. One needed only to see dirt to bear witness to the trait of uncleanliness” (153). The imperial ear, as Spurr notes, similarly denies “cultural value by the negation of linguistic capability” (105). Much travel writing, by concentrating on the immediate, the personal, and the anecdotal, in the absence of any consideration of cultural or political structures, often ignores or minimizes “the importance of relations of power in creating the conditions under which people live” (Spurr 51). These are but a few of the approaches developed in these books, whose unpacking of the ideology of travel writing is so thorough that one has to wonder, with Spurr, whether “the possibilities for written description and representation of other cultures extend beyond the theoretical space occupied by the Western discourses of power” (188).

The attractions of Spurr's bleakly deterministic theories of discourse notwithstanding, I do think that Birney succeeds in writing about other societies in ways that subvert the rhetoric of empire. Birney's poems provide alternatives to the kinds of representation that colonial discourse habitually deploys so as to order forth the distant world that it may be appropriately apprehended and consumed by the cosmopolitan centres of Europe and North America. By way of a first attempt to outline some of the features of Birney's subversive discourse, I shall outline, primarily with reference to the portrayal of Mexico and South America, his poetic representations of history, language, politics and socio-economic structures. Also of interest is the way in which the ideological concerns that are manifested in the crucial matter of the poetry's content are accompanied by self-reflexive reminders of cultural relativity, and how this content is also bodied forth in the poetry's structures.

In his Collected Poems Birney begins the grouping of poems about Mexico, and concludes the following group of poems about South America and the Caribbean with poems in which the narrator talks to Canadian tourists. The travel poems are thus framed by two poetic dialogues which explore the cultural presuppositions that might lead Canadian travellers to falsify what they think they have seen and experienced of a foreign culture. This self-reflexive quality in the enframing poems is also present in many other poems, where Birney ironically acknowledges and dramatizes his own position as gringo tourista. To their credit, Birney's travel poems do not efface their own cultural relativity, do not deny that however closely and sympathetically we attend to the differences of other cultures, we cannot pretend to arrive at a thoroughly disinterested knowledge of them. Indeed, our ability even to approximate an impartial comprehension is dependent on the extent to which we foreground our own partiality. Birney's poems self-reflexively insist that the challenge of travel literature is not solely the portrayal of an other culture, but just as importantly the portrayal of the relations between two cultures.

“Six-sided Square: Actopan,” the first poem in Volume 2 of The Collected Poems, plays with geometry and logic, with the idea that there may be many sides to a story, just as there are six sides to the main “square” in Actopan. A woman, addressed as “Dear Madam” or “dear lady,” asks the knowledgeable, impatient and (let it be confessed) somewhat patronizing male narrator of this poem a series of six questions about Mexico. What she wants from the recently returned visitor to Central America is a simple, reductive portrait of Mexico and Mexicans: she wants to be reassured by an account that domesticates the unique into the “ordinary,” the “usual,” the “average,” and the “normal.” She is dissatisfied with the narrator's choice of Actopan as representative town, and also with his choice to conjure up Mexicans who speak “in Ottomíac gutturals not [found] in Spanish lexicons.” The narrator's recollection of “a brace of ancients … under separate sarapes in a common mescal dream” makes the woman jump to the conclusion that no one in this place is working to make a living. The narrator must remind her about his earlier reference to the ladies who are “selling hexametric chili” in the six-sided square, and add to this evidence of economic activity the fact that their husbands are at work in the shade of the zocalo, spinning lariats from cactus fibre (the same fibre that provides the mescal dream for “the ancients,” it might be noted). Because the narrator's account pictures young boys “bouncing an oval basketball about the square,” she unhesitatingly assumes that the children are not being educated, only to be told that they are not in school because this is a “saint's day, nothing rare.” When the narrator refers to “the pyramidal church some architect / of Cortés built to tame her antecedents,” the woman interrupts with the question: “You mean that Mexico forgets her histor—?” But the narrator insists on “patterns more complex” which “must have precedence” over her need for simple answers that conform to her own interpretive context. As regards religion, for instance, we may read the reference to “the pyramidal church” as an allusion to the fact that (as Birney elaborates in “Machu Picchu”) the Spaniards often built their churches on top of foundations constructed by the New World civilizations they conquered, a procedure made easy and inviting, as anthropologist Herbert J. Spinden writes, because “the pryamids of the New World are simply foundations for temples and thus always have flat tops” (180). Just so, there are complex layers to religion in Mexico. It may be a Catholic country, but “still her priest to Xipe prays for intercedence.” Recalling that the women in this poem gossip in “Ottomíac gutturals,” we might note that “the Otomis are a tribe of central Mexico” that Spinden credits with introducing into Mexico “the peculiar cult of Xipe, God of the Flayed” (189). Birney has done his homework, and we should do no less.

“Six-sided Square: Actopan” pursues a double objective: even as it depicts details of the town's language, culture, history, and market life, it simultaneously dramatizes our own culture's eagerness to essentalize these details into false meanings that confirm preconceptions about lazy, ignorant, culturally impoverished Mexican peasants. By three times having his “Dear Madam” begin her questions with the words “You mean,” only to have the narrator overturn the meaning she sought to impose, Birney begins his poetic travels by emphasizing that we must be alert to the ideological bias that inescapably informs any attempt to make meaning of other cultures. The narrator ends by rejecting the woman's need to domesticate the foreign into something ordinary, average and non-threatening. Birney declares Actopans to be “extraordinary.” A similar critique is found in the final poem in the sequence that traces his travels to Mexico, the Caribbean, South America and Asia between 1955 and 1962, “To a Hamilton (Ont.) Lady Thinking to Travel.” The “anxious lady” is advised not to bother travelling because she obviously wants to see all cities as pretty much the same. The voice that addresses her is sarcastic in its assumption that she is not prepared for the extraordinary, that Hamilton is her yardstick for measuring the acceptable variety of life.

In “Most of a Dialogue in Cuzco” Birney does write of one Canadian tourist who made it to Central and South America. Essentially a dramatic monologue delivered to a liberal American listener by “Julyann,” whom Birney tells us we will meet “wherever Canadian middleclass travellers congregate abroad” (“Notes,” Big Bird in the Bush 94), this dramatic monologue develops explicitly and in great detail Birney's absolute contempt for the racism, intellectual sloth, historical ignorance, cultural narcissism and smug complacency that are characteristic of Canadian travellers to Spanish America. In Julyann's view, native Peruvians are “not really quite human are they? … [They're] really a different species, don't you think … some kind of socialists … worse even than the Russians” (74). Julyann's attribution of everything good in South America to the effects of U.S. aid and ownership, her support for Peru's brutally repressive military dictatorship, and her obsessive red-baiting dismissal of student demonstrators, of the Incas who constructed Machu Pichu, and of the present-day natives as all “inbred type communists” (76), amount to a summary of Birney's political critique of tourism as a replication of earlier forms of imperialist exploitation.

Birney's portrayal of himself as travelling poet, on the other hand, we may take as a fabrication that stages something close to his ideal of how a serious visitor ought to engage with and register a different culture. Birney's model interpreter works to inform himself about the history, religion and cultural practices of the countries he visits; cherishes cultural differences; struggles to relate his understanding of whatever he encounters to the values and practices of the indigenous culture, rather than to his own culture's values and social arrangements; and is unapologetically anti-imperialist in his politics. One of the most attractive features of the self that he dramatizes in “Cartagena de Indias” is this persona's refusal to claim innocence.2 Much as he identifies with the perspective of the native population of Cartagena as opposed to that of his own country, class, and race, and much as he longs to be recognized and embraced by them as a brother, Birney must ruefully acknowledge that he is rich at their expense, that he clearly profits from membership in the white race, and that he cannot wish away his participation in the network of imperialist interests that feeds on their suffering:

It's written in the cut of my glasses
I've a hotelroom all to myself
with a fan                              and a box of Vitamin C
It can be measured
in my unnatural stride
that my life expectation
is more than forty
especially now that I'm close to sixty
older than ever bankrupt Bolívar was.

This honest admission of how he might, with total justification, be resented and feared by those he wishes to embrace in solidarity marks Birney off from a particularly contemptuous practice identified in Imperial Eyes by Mary Louise Pratt. She is particularly hard on “strategies of representation whereby European bourgeois subjects seek to secure their innocence in the same moment as they assert European hegemony” (7). One rhetorical tactic of such “liberal” imperialists is to claim for their withdrawn and inert presence the equivalence of neutrality, even as their “imperial eyes passively look out and possess” (7).

In searching for travel writing that she can praise, Pratt points to writers who seem to be “looking for ways to abdicate the a priori relation of dominance and distance between describer and described” (222). This ideal orientation perfectly accords with the quality and intentions of Birney's self-presence in “Cartagena de Indias” (and other poems such as “Four feet between,” “Meeting of Strangers,” and “Turbonave Magnolia”). Birney's persona is almost always to be found walking “in backstreets / beyond the sleasy grandiosities / of the tourist's quarters” (“Buenos Aires: 1962”). He resists the conventions of most travel literature by sharing the gaze that makes meaning, by relativizing point of view as he portrays himself from the perspective of the Indian women of Cartagena:

but all the eyes accuse me back and say
                              There are only two races here:
                              we human citizens
                              who are poor but have things to sell
                              and you          from outer space
                              unseasonable          our one tourist
                              but plainly able to buy.

Typically, Birney places the onus on the tourist persona to enrich his appreciation of the host society by remaining open to what it chooses to offer him as exemplary or revealing—a concrete monument to the shoes of a local poet for instance—rather than impose an interpretation on the material from the distanced perspective of his own culture. Birney's traveller proceeds from the assumption that understanding results from interactive negotiations between two different but equal cultures.

Of course there can be no negotiations unless the other culture is granted a voice. In her comments on the essentializing imperial eye, Mary Louise Pratt comments that imperial vision is impervious to the reality and integrity of the colonized culture “until those who are seen are also listened to” (153). But there is a long tradition in the rhetoric of empire, as David Spurr points out, “in which non-Western peoples are essentially denied the power of language and are represented as mute or incoherent. They are denied a voice … not recognized as capable of speech” (104). This negation of linguistic capability, “which amounts to the negation of a subjective consciousness,” constitutes a “denial of cultural value” (105). We might hope that Birney, a professor of English, a poet, and a lifelong anti-imperialist, would be sensitive to this issue, and indeed he is.3 He validates other languages in small ways, introducing as a seemingly inconsequential detail of the poem about Actopan, for instance, the continuing existence of a native language; both miraculous in its persistence and banal in its humanity, the Ottomíac language that was once used to worship Xipe is still used to exchange gossip. Birney also makes of native speakers a major subject, thematizing them and their language in the poem “Beldams of Tepoztlán.” The women of this village “bring values to linguisticism”; English or Spanish may serve well enough as languages of commerce, but for more important matters “they'll need four octaves at least / of Aztec clicks / to verbalize a decent quarrel.”

In other poems Birney clears a space for indigenous voices by casting himself in the role of listener: “Sinalóa,” for instance, is a dramatic monologue that turns the stage over to “a tipsy machinery salesman” (The Cow Jumped Over the Moon 98). The salesman's “magnificent flow of Latinamerican English,” Birney remarks in a comment on the origin of the poem, “both exhilarated and horrified” Birney with its defense of “the whole Progress Package” (The Cow Jumped Over the Moon 98). This contemporary Mexican voice has no use for history or tourists, for “Cortés and all dat crap (you heat history?).” Birney is also the visitor who listens in “Transistor,” his grateful account of an old Jamaican women who sings her island's history for him,

… belting songs out
as if she had to send them all the way
back to the sea and the canebrakes
her greatgrandfather ran from
the night he brought her words
stored in his rebellious head
beyond the howl of the slavers' hounds
to this remotest hilltop in Jamaica.

But perhaps Birney's most eloquent moment on the subject of language occurs in “Cartagena de Indias” when he realizes, on our behalf, that cultural silence is the product of cultural relations, that the apparent silence of the Indian women is but an understandable effect of his oppressive presence; he then shifts the point of view to the Indian women's thoughts about him, and finishes by noting the burst of language that fills his absence as he walks on:

Around the ritual braidings of hair
the magical arrangements of fish
the piled rainbows of rotting fruit
I cast a shadow of silence
                              blue-dreaded eyes
                              corpse face
                              hidalgo clothes
                              tall one                    tall as a demon
                              pass O pass us quickly
Behind me the bright blaze of patois
                              leaps again.

The imperialist discourse of negation that denied language and voice to the peoples of Central and South America also denied them history, “constituting the past as absence” (Spurr 98). While Birney does seize opportunities to remind us that there were pre-Cortesian civilizations of extraordinary sophistication and technological achievement, most notably in “Machu Picchu,” he is more concerned with the negation of native history from the traumatic moment of imperial conquest until the present.

The history that he walks us through in “Cartagena de Indias” is a history of the racist exploitation of native Americans, first by European invaders, then by their ruling-class descendants, who grabbed power during the nineteenth-century wars of independence, and finally by U.S.-based multi-national corporations in the twentieth century. After invoking playful parallels between the pirates who once operated out of the city and their contemporary descendants who are out to relieve him of his cash—a contrapuntal structure that is employed throughout the travel poems to relate past historical relations to their present forms—Birney's tourist begins his walk through history. The first stop is “an altar blackened / where the Indian silver was scratched away.” He moves from this reminder of the initial desecration and theft of sacred valuables to a reminder of the sustained commercial exploitation that followed, a “shouting arcade” that sees him “deftly shortchanged” in the place “where gems and indigo were sorted.” Significantly, he is “granted uneasy truce” from history and hucksters “only in the Indio market,” a site of native ritual and matriarchal values that persists in defiance of the male commitment to making capital of history (see, in this regard, “Sestina for the Ladies of Tehuántepec”). From the market Birney moves back into history, stepping to “the beautiful slave-built bridge.” This walking tour of Colombian history ends with his arrival at a statue of Bolívar, which provokes a poetic encapsulation of how the South American wars of independence were betrayed by the indigenous bourgeois leaders:

Out of the heaving womb of independence
Bolívar rode                    and over the bloody afterbirth
into coffee and standard oil
                              from inquisitional baroque
                              to armed forces corbusier.

Independence, in Birney's view, changed nothing for the great mass of people. While styles of governance may change, there is no more freedom under military dictatorships than there was under Spanish bureaucracy; nor is there any relief from domination by foreign capitalists, who have changed only the object of their greed, from silver to coffee to oil.

This interest in structures of oppression that remain constant despite changes in social and economic arrangements is basic to the tropes and rhetorical constructions of almost all Birney's travel poetry. In “Irapuato,” for instance, a pile of “the biggest / and reddest / [strawberries] in the whole damn continent” does not tempt him, as it might most travel writers, to aestheticize the market scene. Rather, local colour bodies forth local history. The strawberries are red with the blood of historical massacres, which persist despite shifts from tribal wars, to foreign invasions, to corporate bleeding of the lifeblood of the economy. Birney records the massacre of

Toltex by Mixtex Mixtex by Aztex
Aztex by Spanishtex Spanishtex by Mexitex
by Mexitex          by Mexitex          by Texaco

“Prosperity in Poza Rica” is also structured to demonstrate time as the simultaneous measure of change and stasis. It opens with the image of “the Indian plough[ing] / the ashen land” with “a gnarled stick / in a gnarled hand.” After the discovery of oil, the penetration of the land by the gnarled stick is replaced by the “derrick's fist,” and noisy towns spring up where “the lawyers treat / the drillers drink / and the beggars eat.” But the poem ends by returning to the image of the Indian: untouched by changes in economic production and excluded from any changes in social arrangements, he continues to plough “with a gnarled stick.”

Another poem that portrays history from the perspective of those who have been excluded from its bounty is “Hot Springs.” Now the site of an expensive hotel, “where even the stairs / cascade with elixir,” the hot springs were once used to wash in by Moctezuma, “and not just to keep clean.” In the days of the dictator, Diaz, the springs were used by the rich and powerful as a cure for gout. Now they are visited by “blacksuited old bankers / plump small generals” and “a leading firecracker millionaire” because they are reputed to remedy


or to put it straight on the line

                                        BOTH MALE AND FEMALE

Whatever changes there have been in political systems, each new configuration of power has retained a ruling class which arrogates to itself exclusive access to the healing powers of hot springs. Birney's witty handling of history becomes suddenly serious in the last stanza, however, segueing into a fantasy of political revolution:

By the cantina across from the carpark
the dusty goatherds are sipping pulque
in the open while                    with their fiery old eyes
they casually shoot every general.

This reading of history as structured by imperialism, racism, and class oppression is complemented by poems about contemporary life in Spanish America that construct it almost wholly in terms of social and economic injustice. “Late afternoon in Manzanillo,” for example, a poem about a resort area on the Pacific Ocean, is organized around the contrast between the ruling class, for whom the town is a source of health and play, and a local fisherman's family, for whom the town is a source of disease and squalid labour. The poem opens with a picture of two doctors and their pregnant wives drinking rum and “play[ing] seriously with surfboards.” The focus shifts to Jesusito, a fisherman who is “hammering / with somewhat malarial languor / a shrimpboat”; nearby in the mud is his “scabbed and naked” daughter, who “kneels rocking her small dead fish / to sleep / in a decaying turtle shell.” This scene is then contrasted with one in the town proper, where “El Capitán Jasón Castillo y Mordita” is walking “up the Street of Games” on his way to buy the services of Jesusito's other daughter, who, infected by a venereal disease,

that the Dark Virgin
                                        with her hand
                                                                                          will cool
this new pain
                                        surging in her crotch.

In a travel piece that he wrote for the readers of Saturday Night magazine (no doubt to pay for his trip), Birney sings the praises of Manzanillo as a cheap, “unspoiled” alternative to Acapulco. But in this poem, perhaps by way of compensation, the social contradictions and ironies that he lays bare are repugnant in the extreme: the rich play at the expense of the poor, whose suffering is a matter of no concern to either the healing powers of medicine or the protective powers of the law.

The allegorical structuring of “Pachucan miners” is similarly explicit, if not quite so appropriately vulgar, in its poetic rendering of how international capitalism crushes the life and spirit out of Mexican miners. Birney draws on Greek, Christian, and Toltecan mythologies to compose his metaphorical model of power relations in Mexico. The mountain and its silver mine, which is protected from Mexicans by a “guarded gate,” is troped as “the white Olympus of the gringos.” The Mexicans, whose backbreaking working life is underground, and whose spiritual life lies buried, are troped as “Orphic.” When they emerge from the mine, they are “like a defeated army.” Only in the cantinas of the valley, drugged by tequila, are they able to recapture and sing their manhood, after which they descend to the prostitute's “torchy den.” Referred to as Eurydice, with “snakes Toltecan looping in her ears” and a “crucifix agleam above the sheet,” the prostitute “daily waits / the nightly rescue of her silver men.” However ambiguous some readers may find this ending, “Pachucan miners” as a whole is unambiguously structured on the side of revolutionary politics.

Birney brought to his travels, of course, a Marxist-Leninist background, and he began his journeys one month after completing final revisions to Down the Long Table, a novel that drew upon and dramatized his seven years of experience as an active Trotskyist. It should come as no surprise, though it has as yet occasioned no critical comment, that his travel poems mirror a Central and South America where political revolution seems called for as a response both justified and necessary. The pro-revolutionary sympathy implicit in many poems is explicitly voiced in “Letter to a Cuzco priest.” This poem appears to be based on an actual incident that took place while Birney was in Peru, for it is also referred to by Julyann in “Most of a Dialogue in Cuzco” (Big Bird 75-76). Because a drought has burned up the mountain pastures, a group of thirty Indians takes a small herd of goats and sheep down to feed, illegally, in the “unfenced valleys”:

A local watchman for the Lima agent
for the American banker
for the Peruvian landowner
living in Madrid
phoned the Cuzco cops
who phoned the army regiment
quartered locally to handle such jobs.

Two Quechuanos are shot dead, twenty are wounded and arrested. The newspapers demand death for these “Red (Indian?) spies in the Andes.” The Indians' actions were inspired by a priest whose words from the pulpit were painted on their cardboard banners:

“The Government is only
an armed front for Fifty Families”
“Let the land feed its people.”

It is to this priest that the poem is addressed. Birney urges him to forgive himself, to feel no guilt for his part in the tragedy: “Father the guilt is not that you spoke / nor that the poor listened acted / have come again to defeat.” Birney rejects the Christian God, but declares a passionate belief in the god within such men as the priest, a god that is equated, for men at least, with the full possession of one's manhood—in this context a figure for revolutionary fortitude, for the strength to stand up to injustice, to say what must be said or do what must be done.

“Buenos Aires: 1962” is a poem about, among other things, poets who lack such admirable political character as the Cuzco priest displayed. In 1962 Argentina was a police state, and Birney's poem documents in detail the ubiquitous presence of the military in Buenos Aires; the city is virtually under siege by military fascists. Successive stanzas document the anti-Semitism, the red-baiting union busting, and the “disappearance” of people whose loyalty to the dictatorship is suspect. But Birney has his own roll call of the disappeared; every other stanza is punctuated with the name of an Argentinian writer who has voluntarily disappeared, a writer who has abdicated his responsibility by remaining silent in the face of fascist tyranny: “Alberti, I don't see you on any corner. … Ricardo Molinari, have you spoken of these?. … Ocampo, there's more here than a Greek myth.” Birney does allow for one exception, one poet who has not disappeared and who says what must be said: “Neruda, there's only you, the foreigner, saying it.

Of course what Neruda and Birney have in common, what both bring to the depiction of social reality in other countries, what inclines them to ask questions in their poetry about the relations among economics, politics and power in other cultures, is their Marxist background. Birney took with him on his travels abroad a personal ideology that had been forged in opposition to the racist, elitist and ethnocentric assumptions that underwrote the history of Western capitalism and imperialism. However much of his Trotskyist politics he jettisoned at the beginning of World War II, he has clearly retained much that is Marxist in his sense of ethics and history.4 In a 1976 interview he reveals that after his disillusionment with Marxist-Leninism, he “always remained a left-wing liberal inclined towards a Marxist understanding of history” (Walker 27).

A poet of rare political courage and sophistication, Birney knew full well, at least a quarter of a century before it became a staple of academic theory, that “the colonizer's traditional insistence on difference from the colonized establishes a notion of the savage as other, the antithesis of civilized value” (Spurr 7). Birney set out quite consciously, and self-consciously, to write against this tradition. He writes to build bridges of identity across the estranging differences of class, race, and ethnicity. Difference is crucial to Birney's anti-imperialist project, but as a social rather than an ontological category: differences are the consequence of international capitalism's asymmetrical distribution of economic power, political freedom, and cultural worth. Accordingly, Birney's travel poems emphasize tension and conflict, avoiding for the most part any easy and false harmonizing of the interests of travelling poet, homebred reader, and foreign subject. The structures of his poems often trace the evolving historical configurations of imperialist oppression, and their content details its local manifestations in different cultures. Aside from our own Earle Birney, whom else may we honour for writing this way at that very cold ideological time, except for Neruda, “the foreigner?”


  1. Although Elspeth Cameron is not much interested in a political reading of the poetry, her biography of Birney provides an excellent account of his involvement with Trotskyism and his travels through Latin America. Marc Arellano's thesis makes a valuable contribution by placing five of Birney's poems in their Mexican, Peruvian, and Colombian social and literary contexts.

  2. See Diana Brydon for a thoughtful exploration of “innocence” and ideology in Canadian writing from a postcolonial perspective.

  3. Louis MacKendrick and Ian Adam are helpful on the relationship between language and ideology in Birney's writing.

  4. See Bruce Nesbitt and Harvey MacLean for the impact of Birney's Trotskyism on his fiction and early poetry.

Works Cited

Aichinger, Peter. Earle Birney. Boston: Twayne, 1979.

Adam, Ian. “Marginality and Commitment: Birney's poetry seen through Down the Long Table,” in Literature and Commitment, Ed. Govind Narain Sharma. Toronto: TSAR, 1988.

Arellano, Marc. “Colonialism's Legacy: Latin America as the ‘Kinky Other’ in Twentieth-Century Non-Latino Canadian Poetry.” Carleton University thesis, 1994.

Birney, Earle. “Mexico without Acapulco.” Saturday Night. 12 November 1995: 43-44.

———. Down the Long Table. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1955.

———. Ice Cod Bell or Stone: A Collection of New Poems. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1962.

———. The Cow Jumped Over the Moon: The Writing and Reading of Poetry. Toronto: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972.

———. The Collected Poems of Earle Birney. 2 vols. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1975.

———. Big Bird in the Bush: Selected Stories and Sketches. Oakville: Mosaic Press, 1978.

Brydon, Diana. “‘The Enemy Within’: Political Commitment in Contemporary English-Canadian Literature,” in Literature and Commitment, Ed. Govind Narain Sharma. Toronto: TSAR, 1988.

Cameron, Elspeth. Earle Birney: A Life. Toronto: Penguin, 1994.

Davey, Frank. Earle Birney. Toronto: Copp Clark, 1971.

———. Reading Canadian Reading. Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1988.

MacKendrick, Louis K. “Gleewords and Old Discretions: Birney's Benefictions.” Essays on Canadian Writing 21 (Spring 1981): 158-73.

MacLean, Harvey. “Radical Perceptions: The Influence of Politics on Earle Birney's Early Poetry.” Carleton University thesis, 1990.

McLeod, Les. “Irony and Affirmation in the Poetry of Earle Birney.” Essays on Canadian Writing 21 (Spring 1981): 130-57.

Nesbitt, Bruce. “The Political Prose of Earle Birney: Trotsky and the 1930s.” Essays on Canadian Writing 21 (Spring 1981): 174-83.

Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Robillard, Richard H. Earle Birney. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1971.

Spinden, Herbert J. Ancient Civilizations of Mexico and Central America. New York: Publications of the Anthropological Handbook Fund, 1978.

Spurr, David. The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing, and Imperial Administration. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993.

Walker, Susan. “Earle Birney Remembers Ten Lost Years.” Quill and Quire (October 1976): 27.

West, Paul. “Earle Birney and the Compound Ghost.” Canadian Literature 13 (1962): 14-20.

Woodcock, George. “The Wanderer: Notes on Earle Birney.” Essays on Canadian Writing 21 (Spring 1981): 85-103.

Gerald Noonan (essay date spring 1996)

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SOURCE: Noonan, Gerald. “Earle Birney (1904-1995).” Malcolm Lowry Review, no. 40 (spring 1997): 28-33.

[In the following essay, which first appeared in The Literary Review of Canada in 1996, Noonan reflects on the half-century career of Earle Birney as a literary figure and cultural ambassador for Canada.]

Over the past fifty years, Earle Birney (13 May 1904 - 3 September 1995), in his creation of some of Canada's most admired poetry, has so pervasively nurtured human progress that his death inspires not so much a look back at his efforts to better our world as a look forward to the nature of our continuing survival.

The loss of the poet, and of his long, energetic and sensitive wrestle with life and words, is softened by the hope that, as Auden said of Yeats, the words of the dead will go on growing in the guts of the living.

Birney very early expressed his concern for our mindless destruction of the earth's environment; in 1949 he was writing, with the chilling irony of truth, a poem, “What's so big about green?,” that ends with the narrator “feeling sort of proud” that human beings “made organic death at last / an irreversible reaction” and accomplished total self-annihilation in just four generations:

What's more We did it without help
from even one good earthquake
or a new volcano
& without using a single bomb
—just Ourselves
                              Our kids

Birney's early anti-war sentiment (engendered during and after his own army service overseas in World War Two) also remains fashionable, although in “Time Bomb” (1945) he, typically, gives it an extra twist: “O men be swift to be mankind / or let the grizzly take.” Birney's idea that a world that does not become more human is not worth saving is probably more uncompromising than the view held by his fellow-travellers, most of them much younger, in the “make love not war” protest marches of the 60s.

Central to Birney's philosophy and to all his writing, including his novels (Turvey and Down the Long Table) and radio plays (notably The Damnation of Vancouver), is the principle that “we must know ourselves before we can better ourselves.” And he adds, “the achievement of greater self-knowledge is the achievement that all the poets and all the artists work toward. …”

Birney championed the advancement of art in Canada. In the process he won the Governor-General's Award twice, the Leacock medal for humour, a Canada Council medal, and was made a member of the Order of Canada. He believed the arts were the great means toward greater self-knowledge, toward expanding people's minds. He himself kept experimenting in his public readings with lively chants and imitative rhythm, and performances of “sound poetry.” In his on-the-page poetry he used jumbled typography, pun-phonetic spelling (Pnomes Jukollages and other Stunzas, for example), shape poems, and the insertion of blank spaces in place of the pause that conventional punctuation signals—or, the practice, as one critic put it, of “punctuational nudity.”

In a series of talks on CBC radio in 1965, Birney said that “surely all art is only trying to look closer, with the fully personal eye, at what we think we already know.” The difficulty of wresting people from what they already “know,” from their too-quick and unquestioned perceptions and assumptions, challenged him to continuing ingenuity.

Birney was unlikely to have any illusions about the ready popularity of his or any innovative art.. His non-experimental poem, “David,” now part of the high school curriculum pretty well coast to coast, was rejected 14 times before it was first published in 1941. Despite being rejected, or scoffed at—or, worse, he felt, being tolerated and ignored as ‘artist’—Birney believed that his subject and goal—“the human race”—was worth his unceasing effort. “I'll even settle” he once wrote, “for the role of the coyote, that lonely yapping ornery stinking enduring snooty creature;” and like the coyote he would go on, if necessary, “howling alone, yet hoping at least to hear one other yip-yap start up over the hill.”

The coyote metaphor is appropriate for Birney in that, Calgary-born (in 1904), he had a prairie boyhood, was lean and rangy in build, and in politics was a vociferous leftist. Further, although he earned a Ph.D. with a thesis on Chaucer (University of Toronto, 1936) and published scholarly articles, he was somewhat of a lone wolf in his first career (until 1965) as a university professor. He initiated and directed a Creative Writing program, the first one to be established in Canadian academic groves, which continues now at University of British Columbia. After 1965 he was, at various places, writer-in-residence, and full-time poet, resident in Toronto. It was in his years as creative writing instructor and writer-in-residence that Birney started many a coyote “yip-yapping” on the neighbouring hillocks, encouraging young writers, helping them to improve, to give readings, to get published and get grants.

Birney was never apologetic about that last point, grants—the support of the arts by taxpayer monies. Since, he noted, governments, after all, unstintingly support “the creative scientists” who develop sophisticated military weapons, how much better that “when the best poems and the best novels and the best plays are dropped on the world they kill nothing but ignorance, destroy only man's hate of other men.”

Nor was he apologetic in 1967 when an American reviewer thought Birney should not be so satirical of academic nincompoops, considering that he himself “has been supported for years and years by the universities.” Retorted Birney: “The universities never supported me. As an overworked and nearly always underpaid professor of philology-anglo-saxon-medieval-canadian-american-world literature at all levels to the doctorate, I was one of those who, through most of my life, supported the universities.”

Although he achieved success as a university professor and scholar, as occasional novelist and dramatist, Birney will be remembered chiefly as a poet. And one of the most dramatic and acclaimed phases of his poetic career derived from his travels outside Canada.

With supporting grants from the Canada Council in the 1960s, Birney travelled to the Caribbean and to Commonwealth countries in the Pacific to spread his message of poetry and increased humanity—a message Birney brought on behalf of a culturally awakening Canada. The subtle appreciative poems that resulted from his travels dramatized Birney's insights into the cultures he visited. There was his poem in Jamaica, for instance, about being at a party with black writers, and being suddenly self-conscious of his white face and of being part of a visible minority:

Suddenly on a wall mirror
                              my face assaulted me
stunned to see itself
                              like a white snail
                              in the supple dark flowers.

The poem, “For George Lamming,” which Birney said was “an act of brotherhood,” has appeared in anthologies throughout the English-speaking world and been translated into Italian, French, and Spanish.

A number of critics judge Birney's travel poems, in general, to be among his best, pointing out how they delineate a Canadian attitude to foreign environments radically different, and preferable, to the “ugly American” arrogance of tourists from more imperialist nations.

Birney's rich artistic response to his experience abroad was indicative, he believed (consistent with his notion of the yeastly leavening effect of art) of potential economic and political interrelationships. On his return, he promoted the idea of further cultural ambassadors from Canada, urging the export of Canadian art by other poets and artists—a process that is, as a consequence or not, comparatively common today.

Some part of Birney's tolerance during his travels as tourist-poet abroad derived no doubt from his familiarity with the less than enthusiastic reception for art at home—those 14 rejections of “David” would linger. Not much wonder then that in Australia he recognizes so quickly the generic lack of interest by some of his hosts. Typical is one woman who would much prefer to hear a lecture (or anything else, one suspects) than live poetry. Birney sets down this imitative rendition of her Australian (“Strine”) accent: “Yew the kin eyejin gander gisses a lecher?”

The accurate ear and clever wordplay—“Yer nat gander read peartree?” she continues in alarm—are characteristic of Birney's craft, but so is the self-mocking nature of his reply, couched in his own flat Canadian accent: “Jus gonna read pomes.”

His ability to see and hear himself as others in far-off places hear and see him—(in Kyoto, amid the restraint and miniaturization of Japan, he stalks “awkward / through lilliput gardens” and is “hunched and clueless like a castaway in the shoals of my room”)—is a testament to his own sensitivity and to his ambassadorial effectiveness.

Earle Birney's prime role, for a half-century, was as cultural ambassador within his own country, creating and fostering greater awareness and understanding. Now that he has completed his posting, never again will we experience him, bobbing and weaving, with melodic chants and off-beat whimsy, as he “gisses” us a lecture. Fortunately, we still have his “pomes”—the “peartree” to which he gave his life. And that goes on enriching ours.

What Birney wrote of the rich and flowering vines of the Caribbean can be applied to his own work:

                              When all the life of sound has milled
                              to silence I think these vines will find
                              a way to trumpet green and purple still
                              and jacararandas ring their bells down ruined streets—
Our kingdom comes and goes with mind.

(“Caribbean kingdoms”)




Birney, (Alfred) Earle (Vol. 1)